If your first custody court date is coming up, you’re probably a barrel full of nerves. If you’re anything like me, whenever anything stressful is approaching, you get that “can’t eat, can’t sleep” feeling. When it relates to your children, that feeling is probably amplified by, like, a million – and, especially since we’re dealing with a court system that you’re, in all likelihood, relatively unfamiliar with, it can’t be easy.
You’re probably wondering what to expect. How to prepare. What you should be doing. What even happens. Who will be there. What the judge will be like. I mean, there are a LOT of questions, right? From the little stuff (like, where will I even park? Do I have to pay for parking?) to the bigger stuff (will a judge make a decision on custody right there on the spot?), there’s a lot of unfamiliar territory for most people when it comes to custody cases.
Take a deep breath, though. Relax a little. I know you’re anxious and overwhelmed, but you’re in the right place, you’re asking the right questions, and you’re going about this the right way to get the information that you need to begin to move your case forward. That’s all anyone can do, right?
So, let’s get started.
You began this process probably several months ago by filing custody, visitation, and child support petitions – or some combination of those petitions. (Though, really, you probably should have filed ALL of them, just in case, but that’s another story for another day.) The opposing party – your child’s father or his mother or whoever is opposing you with respect to custody – was served with your petitions. Or, possibly, vice versa, if it was the other side who filed petitions first, and then you were served instead.
There’s a return date on your petitions for custody, visitation, and/or child support. That’s your first custody court date.
So, with that first custody court date, a lot of people make the mistake of thinking that it’s their trial. It isn’t. But that’s a pretty common misconception, and it’s one of the things that make a lot of people who are new to the court process freak out a little bit in the beginning. There are a lot of things that aren’t easy to understand right off the bat, and it doesn’t SAY on your paperwork that your return date isn’t a trial. There are a lot of things that you have to ask to get the right answer, and it’s hard to know what and whom to ask. Generally speaking, court clerks won’t help but so much (after all, they aren’t allowed to give legal advice, because they aren’t attorneys). It’s not always possible to pay for an attorney. Legal Aid is only so helpful. And so, it’s easy to feel like there’s no help at all out there.
And, so, like most people, you turn to the internet. And you find this. And hopefully you’re finding exactly the answer you’re looking for.
Your first custody court date isn’t a trial date. It’s what we call an initial appearance, and it’s just a time when all parties are schedule to appear before the judge, let him or her know what the issues in the case are, and set the matter for a trial. Sometimes, a judge will do things like order mediation, order that the parties complete a parenting education seminar, or appoint a guardian ad litem. If one party doesn’t show up, it’s possible that the judge will order exactly what the petitioning party asks for—but that’s rare, though it could happen.
What should I expect at my first custody court date?
At your first custody court date, you should expect a trial date to be set, so bring your calendar. You can discuss your available dates and times with the judge and opposing counsel, if the other party is represented by an attorney.
It may also be that a GAL will be appointed. If there’s an attorney on the other side, he or she may suggest someone. You can discuss that appointment with the opposing attorney. If there’s not someone on the other side, the judge will likely recommend a GAL for your case instead.
If the judge orders a parenting education seminar, do it as quickly as possible. Don’t argue.
If the judge orders mediation, schedule it quickly. Remember that, though you have to go (the judge ordered it, after all), you don’t have to reach an agreement when you go. If it’s unproductive, you are free to leave.
You will likely have a chance to speak, but keep it brief and to the point. Discuss what brings you to court today, and what you’d like to achieve. This isn’t the place to point the finger at the other party (give yourself time to read the judge more before you try to paint the other party as a bad guy). Make sure you’ve read the best interests of the child factors too, and make sure that what you’re saying takes those into account. They’re really incredibly important, and should inform your arguments at every point. At this point, you’re NOT in the middle of a trial – you’re not testifying, you’re just giving a bit of an opening argument. You don’t want to burn any bridges before you’ve gotten the measure of the case, so don’t come on too strong. Raise the issues, bring up your concerns, ask for what you want –and don’t get too bogged down in the he said/she said. At this point, those are your most important goals. Remember that at this point the judge isn’t making a final decision, so you want to use this as a valuable opportunity to read his or her body language, listen very carefully to what he or she says, and begin to prepare for trial in your mind.
I’m scared. How can I prepare better for these hearings?
Custody is a process, and there’s no question that there’s a lot at stake. It’s scary! I get it. I’m a mom, too, and I know how you must be feeling.
It’s great that you’re looking to how you can be better prepared for these hearings. After all, they’re really, really important. You can’t take it too seriously.
That’s why we offer Custody Bootcamp for Moms. It’s an intense, all day seminar designed to help Virginia moms learn what they need to know to represent themselves at the juvenile court level in custody and visitation cases. It’s full of the type of information you’ll need to know at this stage in the process. It’ll help educate you about what to expect, teach you tips and tricks for preparing for these types of hearings, and give you answers to the kinds of questions that brought you here today.
Not everyone can afford to hire an attorney. That’s okay. That doesn’t mean you have to go in empty handed and hoping for the best. Take time now to gather the information and learn the ropes, and you (and your custody case) will be much, much better off for it.
Your first custody court date is important, but it’s not your trial. You’ll have another chance to go in front of the judge, present your evidence, question your witnesses, and testify yourself. What happens if you don’t like what happens then? Stay tuned, on Friday we’ll discuss what happens when you get a bad result in juvenile court.
For more information about Custody Bootcamp for Moms or to schedule an appointment with one of our licensed and experienced Virginia divorce and custody attorneys, give our office a call at 757-425-5200.