Trials are tough. They’re really intimidating and, at the end of the day, it’s really hard to know how the cookie is going to crumble, so to speak. There’s a lot of risk inherent in leaving everything (especially when “everything” is as important as custody of your children!) up to a judge—the one person in the courtroom who knows the LEAST about the case. When you’re preparing for a custody trial, you’ve go to be really careful, because you don’t want to put so much as a single toe out of line. You want to be sure you’ve got everything under control, and as much prepared ahead of time as possible, so that you don’t choke under the judge’s stony gaze.
It’s especially important to be prepared if you’re planning on going to court in your custody case without hiring a family law attorney. You don’t have to hire an attorney, whether you’re in the juvenile court or the circuit court, but that means you’re going to have to bear the brunt of a lot of hard work and preparation yourself. That’s why we’re here.
Today, I’m going to give you some pointers for preparing for a custody trial. If you’re gearing up for a trial right now, you’ll definitely want to take these pointers to heart—and, of course, do some serious research and preparation on your own. Still, I’m happy to try and help you get started. It’s not going to be easy—but I’m assuming you already know that, right?
It is possible to represent yourself in a custody case in Virginia. Not everyone chooses to do it, but not everyone has a choice. When you’re children’s lives and well-being are at stake, sometimes you just have to set up to bat and see what you can accomplish. After all, as their mother, no one cares about the outcome more than you, or can apply more zeal and passion to the case.
Tips for preparing for a custody trial
1. Learn the best interests of the child factors. From Virginia Code §20-124.3, they are as follows:
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 deem necessary and proper to the determination.
The importance of these factors really can’t be understated; if you’re preparing for a custody trial, you need to know them front and back. They’ll be what you build your entire case around.
2. Be mindful of what you say and how you behave.
Ultimately, a lot comes down to how you act when you get in front of the judge. Don’t forget that he’s there, judging your every move. He’s going to look at the facts and evidence, of course, but he’s also going to look at you. Are you behaving like a calm, rational human being who would be a good custodian for your children? Or are you hysterical, immature, selfish, or spiteful?
It’s not always possible to be completely devoid of emotion; obviously, there’s a lot at stake here, and you’re pretty invested in the outcome. Still, you’ll want to behave the way you want the judge to see you. You should be clean and well turned out, wearing clothes like you might wear to church. You should speak calmly and respectfully to others in the courtroom, including clerks, bailiffs, opposing counsel, and the guardian ad litem. Don’t roll your eyes, suck your teeth, angrily write notes, or speak when it isn’t your turn. To the extent that you can, control your crying. (Judges are often uncomfortable with criers.)
If you’re a witness, you should speak slowly and clearly. Feel free to take time to formulate your answer before speaking. (After all, court reporters only record what was said, not the length of any silence that comes after a question is asked and before an answer is given.) Be conscious of what you’re saying about your child’s father; you don’t want to look like you’re being malicious or spiteful, or like you can’t be trusted to do what needs to be done to foster a relationship between father and child.
3. Remember: the guardian ad litem is NOT your friend.
The guardian ad litem has been appointed as a legal representative for the child. The GAL is not there to be friendly with you—though he or she MAY be friendly, you should remember that he or she does not represent you and has no duty of confidentiality towards you. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that because you’re comfortable with them you tell them more than you ought to. It’s best to keep your comments positive and upbeat, even when discussing your child’s father, and allow him or her to discover your child’s father’s faults for himself or herself. You bashing him won’t help your case—and it could seriously damage it.
Guardians ad litem serve an important function in custody cases, and judges rely heavily on their opinions. You should keep in mind at all times that this person is judging you, and will ultimately make a recommendation for the court. His or her recommendation is likely to be very highly regarded by the judge, and you want to take steps to appear in as positive a light as possible.
4. Custody Bootcamp for Moms can help.
Just because you’re choosing not to hire a family law attorney doesn’t mean that you have to go at it alone. Custody Bootcamp for Moms is our custody seminar, designed specifically to help moms like you, who want to represent themselves in their custody and visitation cases at the juvenile court level. We teach you what you need to know to prepare your own case, all for less than the cost of ONE HOUR with a moderately priced local attorney.
For more information about the seminar, registration, or upcoming event dates, visit our website by clicking here. Want to learn more? Request a free copy of our report, “Can I REALLY Represent Myself in a Custody Case?” by clicking here.
If you have more questions about Custody Bootcamp or want to schedule an appointment with one of our licensed and experienced Virginia custody and family law attorneys, give our office a call at (757) 425-5200.