Divorce and custody cases do all sorts of things to people. Things that, before the case were on the horizon, would have seemed unthinkable—in both good ways and bad. One of the most annoying things that happens is when a formerly deadbeat dad decides that he now wants custody, or at least wants more parenting time with the children than you might have originally expected given his general lack of interest and involvement up until this point.
It’s frustrating, but it’s also incredibly common. Deadbeat dads change their tune all the time—to both the relief and the annoyance of moms everywhere. I’ve talked to moms on both ends of the spectrum; moms who cry tears of joy that, for whatever reason, their child’s father is now willing to be a part of the child’s life in a meaningful way, and moms who are resentful and frustrated that dad would be able to swoop in and change the family dynamics in such a profound way. Both sets of feelings (and feelings somewhere in the middle, or even feelings that oscillate between the two) are understandable.
If you’re frustrated by dad’s sudden involvement, this article is for you. The objective here is to go in depth on these types of cases, and discuss the sorts of things that can happen and what to expect if you have to go to court. Most of the time, custody is something that is agreed upon by the parties without the involvement of a judge (and, in those cases, almost anything goes); in the event that your case is litigated, though, you’ll want to know what to expect. Right?
How does the court make decisions in custody cases?
As far as custody is concerned, the court begins and ends its analysis with the best interests of the child factors. If you’re going to court on a custody case, you’re going to want to be prepared to make an argument that pretty much exclusively centers on the best interests of the child factors. If you haven’t had a chance to read them yet, now’s the time. Here they are:
1. The age and physical and mental condition of the child, giving due consideration to the child’s changing developmental needs;
2. The age and physical and mental condition of each parent;
3. The relationship existing between each parent and each child, giving due consideration to the positive involvement with the child’s life, the ability to accurately assess and meet the emotional, intellectual and physical needs of the child;
4. The needs of the child, giving due consideration to other important relationships of the child, including but not limited to siblings, peers and extended family members;
5. The role that each parent has played and will play in the future, in the upbringing and care of the child;
6. The propensity of each parent to actively support the child’s contact and relationship with the other parent, including whether a parent has unreasonably denied the other parent access to or visitation with the child;
7. The relative willingness and demonstrated ability of each parent to maintain a close and continuing relationship with the child, and the ability of each parent to cooperate in and resolve disputes regarding matters affecting the child;
8. The reasonable preference of the child, if the court deems the child to be of reasonable intelligence, understanding, age and experience to express such a preference;
9. Any history of family abuse as that term is defined in § 16.1-228 or sexual abuse. If the court finds such a history, the court may disregard the factors in subdivision 6; and
10. Such other factors as the court deems necessary and proper to the determination.
He never wanted to be involved before. Can I show evidence of his lack of involvement to the court?
Sure you can. You can offer evidence to illustrate whatever point you’re trying to make, but I’m not entirely convinced that this evidence is what’ll be most helpful to your case. Even if your child’s father has been uninvolved up until now, that doesn’t mean that the court is going to deny him a chance now that he’s asking for it. In fact, I can almost guarantee you that it won’t deny him the opportunity.
Why? Because having dad involved is, according to the court, in the best interests of the child. If you want to make a different argument, you’ll want to use the best interests of the child factors to do it—not focus on the fact that he wasn’t super involved before the case began.
Almost every court will find that, whether he was involved before or not, if he wants the opportunity now, he should have it. Having two loving, involved parents is going to be better, according to the court, than one, and the fact that he’s had a change of heart regarding his level of involvement is a good thing, from the kid’s point of view, so the court will allow him the opportunity to become a part of their lives.
If he’s been totally gone for a long period of time, it may be slower because you may have to follow specific reunification processes. If he has just taken a backseat to your parenting but has been around, even if only in the background, he’ll probably get visitation pretty quickly.
Can I ask for supervised visitation? He really has no experience with the children on his own, and I’m not comfortable sending them with him.
…Probably not. Supervised visitation is rarely something that the court orders and, when it does, it’s usually because there’s some physical risk of harm to the child. If it’s just that dad is inexperienced, your chances of a judge awarding supervised visitation are almost nil.
If there’s a reason for supervised visitation, the decision will be entirely different. Because yours is probably a very complicated case (there must be some physical, emotional, or sexual abuse present), you should definitely talk to an attorney about your options and whether, in your particular case, supervised visitation is likely.
He just wants shared custody so that he will get a reduction in child support. What can I do about that?
You’re probably not going to get anywhere with this argument—and you may actually do damage to your case. However true that statement may be, you’re better off focusing on your own strengths as a parent than focusing on whatever terrible reason he might have for doing what he’s doing. Maybe that’s exactly what his plan is, but, really, the court won’t care too much because, in its view, the most important thing is that the child has access to both parents. It’s not about a child support calculation, it’s about the best interests of the child.
There are plenty of real, valuable, measurable ways that the best interests of the child factors really allow you to shine, especially if up until now you’ve taken on the bulk of responsibility with respect to raising the child. Focus on the good you’ve done in an effort to maximize your parenting time with the child rather than focusing on all the terrible things he’s done or all the bad intentions he might have. It’s not worth the risk of looking angry and bitter, either. Even if that’s not a fair assessment of the situation, we want to be very, very careful of what we say in front of the judge because he is constantly forming opinions—and we want them to be good ones.
For more information about what to do when your child’s deadbeat dad starts nosing around for more time with the children, give our office a call at (757) 425-5200.