On Monday, we talked about whether you’re capable of representing yourself in your custody case and covered the first two (of seven) things you really do need to remember about Virginia custody cases. Of course, there are lots of things you should know to prepare for a custody case but, let’s be honest—there’s a limit to exactly how much you can remember, especially when you’re stressed. So, to help, I’ve compiled a list of the 7 things you should know before you face a custody case. Like, if you can remember absolutely nothing else, these are the 7 things you should remember. Yes, they’re that important!
On Monday, we covered the first two things: (1) that you should never, ever, never bad mouth your child’s other parent, and (2) that the ten statutory best interests of the child factors are the most important things you can remember. If Moses came down and wrote the ten commandments of custody cases on stone tablets at Mt. Sinai, these are the ten things he would write. Today, we’ll cover number 3 through 7. At the end of this article, you’ll be way more prepared than you were before, and that can only do good for you as you prepare for your custody case.
Without further ado, let’s get started.
3. While you’re preparing for your custody case, you should live like you have a private investigator following you.
There’s probably not a private investigator following you, but there might be. We’ve seen it happen in custody cases, and sometimes the results aren’t pretty. You should be very careful about what you’re doing, and what information you’re putting out there. Everything that you do should be carefully calculated to show what an awesome mother you are.
When the other side hires a private investigator, they’ll usually call him (or her, of course) as a witness. You should make sure that the private investigator is your BEST witness. He shouldn’t be able to say anything more than what an amazing mother you are.
You should also apply this principle when it comes to all your social media accounts—because, even if he hasn’t hired a real private investigator, he is certainly looking at your page himself! Anything that you post on any site—Facebook, Google+, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, whatever—should show you as a super mom. (Of course, if you choose to post nothing at all, that’s probably the safest bet.) There should be no (absolutely no) pictures of you drinking, going out late at night, hanging out with strange men, or anything of the sort.
To be safe, assume someone is always watching.
4. Remember that guardians ad litem and custody evaulators are there to give their opinion to the court, and that judges often rely heavily on them.
It can be difficult to allow someone to pry into your personal life, and that’s really what a guardian ad litem or custody evaluator is going to do. He (or she) is going to ask you a lot of questions about you, your background, your parenting style, and your feelings about your child’s father.
They’ll ask tough questions, and they’ll probably say things you feel you don’t deserve. They may not see straight through to the real issues, or disagree with you about what the issues actually are. They may be fooled by your child’s father’s schemes and tricks, and it may be endlessly frustrating to you.
Whatever happens, you need to be incredibly careful of your behavior around your custody evaluator or guardian ad litem. He (or she) is watching you and making decisions about your fitness as a parent based on what he (or she) sees from you. Don’t give him any negative material.
He probably will ask you what you think of your child’s other parent. You need to be very careful of what you say, how you say it, and how it is received by the guardian ad litem. It is generally not advisable to criticize your child’s other parent in front of the GAL; it’s probably also not a good idea to spend a ton of time extolling his many virtues. You want to walk a very fine line between not making him look like the worst human being in the history of the world (because that’s just not believable and you’ll look vindictive), and not describing him as a saint (because, if he were, why would anyone award custody to a mere mortal like you?). Probably it’s best to be vague and let the GAL or evaluator form his or her own opinion about your child’s father, rather than run the risk of looking bad by saying something you shouldn’t (or making him look too good—but that’s probably less likely).
5. Don’t lie, and always be prepared to explain less than flattering facts.
No one is a saint, and judges, guardian ad litems, and custody evaluators seem to unfairly expect you to be. They are looking for every single bad fact about you they can find, and they act like it’s the end of the world when they do. Okay, so maybe you do lose your temper sometimes. And other times, your kids eat boxed macaroni and cheese. Sometimes, too, you have too many things going on, and a kid falls down the stairs or trips and ends up with a goose egg on his forehead or a nasty bloody lip. You’ve had a drink or two at dinner at least once, and, apparently, that means you’re an alcoholic.
Sometimes, it really does seem unfair. The standards are set so high, and it feels like the GAL is just picking around, looking for weaknesses to exploit. If you look at anyone under a microscope, you’ll probably find something. It’s frustrating, and it’s tempting to do everything you can to cover up every single little mistake.
I’m not saying that you should write a list for the GAL of every single time you felt like the world’s worst mother. Just like when we talked about not badmouthing your child’s other parent, you’re walking a very fine line here. You want to be open and honest about bad things that have happened, but you don’t want to just hand over ammunition.
Admit mistakes, and never, ever lie. If you lie, not only will the something bad still have happened, but now you’re a liar on top of it all. It doesn’t help the situation. It’s best to admit, provide whatever explanation you can, and move on. Indicate the steps you’ve taken to ensure that this won’t happen again, and how you’re ready to move on.
6. Focus on the positives.
Remember those custody factors? Remember how important I said they were? Well, when you’re having those difficult conversations with the GAL or the custody evaluator, focus on those factors. Talk about what you’re doing for the kids.
You’re doing a lot! You’re coaching soccer or co-leading the girl scout troop. You’re taking them to museums and art exhibits and botanical gardens. You’re helping with homework and encouraging try outs and auditions. You’re reading before bedtime, and teaching them to cook. You’ve taught them to clean up after themselves and help the family out with a few chores. You’re working on teaching them the value of money, budgets, careful spending, and saving. You take them to church, Sunday school, and youth group. You talk about kindness, helping others, and giving thanks. You encourage volunteering, and teach awareness about children and families who are less fortunate. You kiss their booboos and take them to the doctor. You carefully administer medication, and wake at the slightest noise. You help them make arts and crafts, write letters to grandma, and buy all their school pictures, do you can document them as they grow and change.
In short, you do everything you can to give your kids the best, brightest future possible. You’re definitely concerned with the “best interests” of your children. Even though you don’t usually think about how what you’re doing meets one of the factors on the list, you’re doing it already. And, when the GAL starts talking to you about what you do for the children, you should have a lot to say.
There’s a lot of positive information out there. Spend some time gathering your thoughts and thinking about how what you’ve done applies to the ten factors. How does that make you an awesome mother? There’s lots to say, and now is not the time to be modest. Toot your own horn. Tell him (or her) what a great mom you are. Because, after all, you are.
7. Bring your game face to court.
You’ve done everything right. You’re prepared, and you’ve barely slept the last several nights in anxious anticipation. Your trial is coming up, and you’re ready.
Don’t make mistakes now, at the very end. When you show up for court, be sure you’re dressed appropriately. You don’t need to look like an attorney (in fact, it’s probably better if you don’t), but you don’t want to look like a bum off the street either. It’s best if you dress like a mom. Now, that doesn’t mean mom jeans and a turtleneck sweater; it just means you have to look like a strong, capable woman. Typically, we advise our clients to dress like they would for church. A dress or skirt with a blouse or pants with a cardigan or sweater works well. Wear something natural and comfortable for you, so you don’t spend the whole day fidgeting. Dress sensibly, not necessarily stylishly, but be put together. Fix your hair, wear a little light makeup, and be yourself.
Make sure you show up on time. If you’ve never been to the court before, check out how to get there ahead of time. Find out what the parking situation is like. Will you be able to find parking? Do you need to have some change on hand to pay for it? (Are the shoes you’re planning on wearing comfortable enough to make it from the parking lot to the court?) Make the drive at the time of day you’ll need to go to court, just to see what traffic is like. If that’s not possible, make sure you give yourself plenty of time to get there the day of your trial. Being late will cost you—big time.
Come prepared. Depending on the court you’re in, you may have a specific time slot when your case will be heard, or you may just be there at the same time as everyone else for docket call. If you’re there for docket call, then everyone else who has a case that day will have the same time listed for their case. The judge will hear a brief overview of the cases at the start of the day, and bump each one up or down on the docket. Some cases (usually, the ones that will be quick) are heard early; others (typically, the ones the judge is afraid will take longer) are heard later—ostensibly, to give the parties time to negotiate a settlement before the judge has to hear it. In that case, you may want to come prepared. Bring a snack with you; sometimes these things run through the lunch hour. Granola bars or trail mix are usually good things to bring. Don’t bring anything that could stain or needs to be refrigerated. I went to court once with a lady who brought strawberries with her. Of course, she dropped one right on her white blouse, and had to go into the courtroom with a red stain front and center.
Come prepared. Did I say that already? Well, now I mean prepared in a different way. Going to court isn’t comfortable, and it’s pretty likely that some unflattering things will be said about you. Maybe it’s the GAL or the custody evaluator. Maybe it’s a private investigator. Almost certainly it’s your child’s father, and your child’s father’s attorney. You need to be prepared for these things, and you need to be ready to handle it with composure. Don’t make faces, suck your teeth, make rude hand gestures, roll your eyes, or express dissatisfaction with these negative statements in any way. To the judge, you’ll only come across as unbalanced and immature. Stay calm, cool, and collected, and you’ll have a much better chance of convincing the judge that you’re the solid, reliable mother you’re portraying yourself to be.
That’s it! Those are the 7 things that, if you remember nothing else about Virginia custody cases, you should really, really, seriously do your absolute best to remember. Read and re-read these things, if need be. They’ll help you frame your thoughts, prepare for your case, and know what to expect. They cover all sorts of things—from practical stuff (like to figure out how to get to court ahead of time and bring a snack in case it takes longer than expected) to the “golden rules” of custody cases (those ten best interests of the child factors) and even the basic stuff (to remind you what a good mother you are—you’ve got the material, you’ve just got to organize it and prepare to present it).
You’re in a much better place than you were in before you read this article. If you’re still worried about your custody case, consider attending Custody Bootcamp for Moms—it’s a great way to get a total overview of custody cases in Virginia (heck, it isn’t even taught as clearly and concisely in law school!), so it’ll definitely help you prepare. Whether you’ve hired your own attorney and just want to check up on him, or if you’re gearing up to represent yourself and want to walk into that courtroom with your head held high, Custody Bootcamp for Moms can help.
Want a little more help? Feel free to give our office a call at (757) 785-9761 to schedule a confidential appointment with one of our experienced attorneys. You don’t have to hire us just to meet with us and get some information; it may just be that you’ve got a few questions, and we’ll certainly answer those for you. If you want to retain, we can help you there, too—we’ve got tons of experience in custody cases at the juvenile and circuit court levels, both as part of a divorce and separate from a divorce action. You’re in the right place, you’re asking the right questions, and we can help.