What you need to know before you go to court in your custody case

Posted on May 14, 2014 by Katie Carter

If you read my blog on Monday, you know that we started talking about the 9 tips you needed to know to face your upcoming custody case. On Monday, we talked about tips 1-4, so, if you missed them, you’ll want to double back and check out my article by clicking here.

Going to court often makes even the most level headed woman feel a little nervous and insecure. It can be an overwhelming and emotional experience, especially in a custody case! You need to remember that you’re going to court because you have a job to do, so you have to get your head in the game. Prepare ahead of time, and you’ll feel much more calm and collected on the day.

Today, we’re going to talk about tips 5-9. If you have a custody case coming up, you definitely don’t want to miss these tips to help ensure that your day in court will run as smoothly as possible.

5. Bring your game face.

You can call it your poker face if you want. Either way, when you show up to court, you want to be as calm, cool, collected, and in control of your emotions as is humanly possible. In a lot of cases, going to court means that you’re coming face to face with your child’s father for the first time in a long time, so it’s hard to imagine staying calm in the face of that kind of pressure. You’re experiencing a number of competing emotions. You can’t believe you’re here, fighting like this, and you also can’t believe that he thinks for a second that he can provide for the child’s needs as well as you can, since you’ve been the one doing it all along. You also want him to see you and think about what he lost when he lost you, and at the same time you just want to appear credible and responsible in front of the judge. It’s a lot of pressure, and a lot of conflicting emotions. Be prepared for that and, as much as possible, prepare for it ahead of time.

The most important thing to remember is that you have a job to do in court, and your children’s future is at stake. You’re there to show the judge all the good you’ve done, and not to let your feelings for your child’s father get in the way of that. You’ve worked hard and made a lot of sacrifices for your children. Their well being means so much to you that you’ve engaged in this custody case to protect them, and to promote their best interests. By getting angry, upset, or tearful over seeing your child’s father, you’re undermining all the good things you’ve done. You’re making it harder for the judge to see you as the mature, respectful, responsible, cooperative person he wants to see be the caretaker of these children. Don’t give your child’s father any extra ammunition.

You should always stay calm and collected while you’re in the courtroom. Even if the judge isn’t on the bench, the bailiffs and the courtroom clerks are watching you, and the judge will talk to them about their impressions of the parties later. If you’re giving your child’s father the stink eye, or hurling insults at him across the courtroom, you’re not doing yourself any favors. It may feel good in the moment, but you’re certainly not helping your case.

Don’t make faces, flip the bird, suck your teeth, cry, or sigh melodramatically when you talk to your husband and his attorney, or when you’re in court in front of the judge listening to him present his case. Judges are uncomfortable with emotion, and you engaging in any of these behaviors makes it likely that the judge will feel you are not a very mature person. Again, you are in court because you have a job to do, and you should put up a brave face while you’re doing it. No rude or immature behaviors allowed.

6. Speak respectfully to the judge.

Remember that your body language and your tone of voice says a whole lot about you. When you’re in front of the judge, as we’ve already discussed, you should behave like a mature adult to your child’s father.

But you should also be respectful and personable. You should speak earnestly, honestly, and respectfully to the judge. You should not spend your time on the stand berating your child’s father or discussing his failings. Spend your time talking about your children, your efforts to promote their best interests, and how you want to work with their father to help provide the most stable upbringing possible. Indicate that you are willing to foster coparenting as much as possible.

Smile when you talk about your children. Your attorney should ask questions that help you show emotion in an effective way. You shouldn’t cry, but smile when you talk about their personalities and their accomplishments. The judge should see that you’re human, that you’re kind, compassionate, and, ultimately, endearing in some way. If the judge likes you as a human being, it helps your case. Soften your tone and make sure the way you deliver your sentences reflects your love for your children and your eagerness to foster their development, not your anger at your child’s father for breaking up the family.

Being likeable is important. Talk with your attorney about what you can do to improve your speech and delivery, and practice in front of a mirror, if possible.

7. Eat breakfast, and bring a snack.

There is really no telling exactly how long court will last. Your stomach may be upset in the morning, but, before long, your body will start telling you that you should have eaten. The last thing you want is your stomach growling loudly in the courtroom, or you feeling so desperate to get out and get something to eat that you lose interest in the proceedings. You need to be an active participant in the proceedings, and you need to not let your hunger get in the way of that.

Eat a real breakfast before court, and bring something with you in case it takes longer than you expected. I’ve been at court until almost 3 for a 9am hearing before and I was so grateful that I had a little granola bar in my briefcase! I don’t always need a snack, but, when I do, I’m so grateful for it!

Some courts do have vending machines, but you can’t always count on that.

Stay alert, stay focused, and avoid getting too hungry. Just in case, bring something that doesn’t need to be refrigerated that you can snack on, just in case some inconvenient hunger pangs strike.

8. Be prepared to negotiate on the courtroom steps.

Well, honestly, you probably won’t be on the actual steps. It’s an expression attorneys use. I have heard so many attorneys say that they settled their cases on the courtroom steps, but I never see attorneys standing on the courtroom steps negotiating. What these attorneys mean when they say that they settled on the courtroom steps is that, just prior to going in to their hearing, they reached an agreement that meant they didn’t actually have to let the judge decide.

It’s really very, very normal for attorneys to meet prior to the hearing to try to reach a settlement, rather than letting the judge decide how the case will be handled. It’s also quite common for the judge to insist that attorneys do their best to settle, even on the morning of the hearing, before coming in to litigate whatever issue brought them into court. I’ve heard judges insist that attorneys negotiate with each other before bringing the issue in front of the court.

Chances are that you’ll be in a small conference room in the courthouse. Sometimes, attorneys and their clients meet together in the same room. Other times, attorneys set their clients up in separate rooms, and negotiate terms back and forth. In still other cases, attorneys meet their clients, then the attorneys talk together, and go back to their clients with what they’ve been able to negotiate for final approval.
So, it’s certainly possible that all your worry is for nothing. It’s possible that you’ll agonize over how to get to the courthouse, select the most perfectly motherly outfit you can find, find out what courtroom you’re in, ask a couple questions to your attorney about the judge and how he usually decides cases like these, only to settle with your attorney moments before your case was slated to start.

9. Settlement is NOT a cop out.

For some reason, a lot of people seem to think that, unless they take their case to the furthest possible end, they’re “settling” for less than they deserve. When you settle your case, you aren’t “settling” in a negative way.

I think most of us have seen just enough courtroom dramas to be truly misinformed. While I love a good courtroom drama as much as the next person, the reality is that most of the cases you see on TV aren’t family law cases. Mostly, we see criminal law or personal injury cases. (Think: “The Lincoln Lawyer,” “Erin Brockovich,” “A Few Good Men,” “Chicago,” “Philadelphia,” “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and “A Time to Kill”. Not a family law case in the bunch!) Of course, there ARE movies on family law cases (ever seen “Kramer v. Kramer”?), they’re just not the norm.

The reality is that family law cases are almost always settled. Why? Well, because there’s less to gain by going to trial. In a family law cases, all you have are the assets you already had, but you’ll automatically have less than you did before because you’ve got to divide things in half. If you pay outlandish fees to your attorney to continue to litigate, it’s likely that you’ll get less, not more. Compare that to a personal injury case, where a person who settles stands to get a $100,000 settlement, when what they expected was more along the lines of several million. In a family law cases, millions won’t materialize, and no one gets a windfall.

The reason for settling in family law cases is similar to the reason for pressing forward in personal injury cases: the people involved want more. In family law, to get more, you have to settle—because otherwise you’ll end up spending the extra money on attorneys fees, and there will be less money left for the people involved.

Don’t let the connotation of the word “settling” keep you from reaching a settlement. In many cases, reaching a settlement is the best thing that could happen.

Remember, once you get into the courtroom, there’s really no telling what could happen. Ultimately, you place the decision in the judge’s hands, and that’s a scary proposition. It is often the judge who know the LEAST about a case. Is that really who you want making a decision about what is going to happen to your children?

Besides, you and your child’s father will have to start coparenting at some point. If your children are young, especially, you have a long ways to go before they become legal adults and can make decisions for themselves. It’s best for your children if you and your child’s father can discuss things together and come to an agreement with respect to the issues affecting the children. After all, it’s something you’re going to have to do for years and years to come. Also, I find that, once the relationship deteriorates the point that we have to go to court, it can be really hard to get back to a place where you and your child’s father can trust each other enough to collaborate.

That being said, though, it’s not always possible to settle and avoid going to court. Your attorney can help you decide whether going to court is the right decision for you, taking into account all of the unique factors and circumstances affecting your particular case. Going to court is never easy, but sometimes it is necessary. If you need help with your upcoming custody case, please feel free to give our office a call at (757) 425-5200.