You are an active dad -- way beyond changing a few diapers. You attend to the emotional needs of your kids and are genuinely involved in caretaking: potty training, homework, tantrums. You're involved in a real, meaningful way.
What happens when an actively involved dad is faced with a nasty, contentious custody battle? Here are the top five things that active fathers should know before they set foot in a courtroom:
1. Fight as hard as you can to get the most time possible from the very start. Whether you want the kids to live with you (as primary residential custodial parent) or you simply want to have an "aggressive" visitation access schedule, be clear about your goals and push for what you want. If you want equal time (or any decent amount of time), you need to push for more from the very beginning of the case. Devise a strategy to demonstrate to the court that you understand your child's routines, needs and care. Show why the schedule you are proposing is workable, realistic and in the "best interests of the child." You cannot settle for a tiny "temporary" schedule and expect to fight for more later, because you are then fighting an uphill battle.
2. Find an attorney who gets it. Many divorce lawyers just don't understand why dads want more access time. You are dealing with a system that has historically favored mothers' custody wishes, and is only now very slowly changing. You need an attorney who will understand your reasons and help you in presenting your best case. How do you find a lawyer who gets it? Shop around: set up consultations with attorneys to see what their approach would be and how they respond to your end goal. Ask about other cases they have handled for active dads and creative solutions they have used. Read online reviews and get a feel for how attorneys respond to your questions in Q&A forums. If you feel like your lawyer is pushing you towards a bleak arrangement -- push back. Make it clear to your attorney that you are not afraid of trial and help steer them away from the internal pressures for a hasty settlement. Unless you can live with that settlement, keep pushing to see the judge. But most importantly: find a lawyer who will help you fight for your goals from the start.
3. Do not bring child support issues up in custody conversations. Period. Many people -- even some lawyers -- will assume you want more time with your kids because you want to pay less child support, even when faced with facts that you are the more nurturing parent. While some states tie access time to support (like New Jersey), many do not: in New York, for example, even if parents settle on a 50-50 time share with the children, the law states that the parent who earns more will still pay child support. No matter where you live, try to keep these issues separate. Otherwise, your reasons for spending time with your child get colored by the notion that you "just don't want to pay."
4. Draw your schedule -- literally. I do this with clients during mediation and also with attorneys at court: a quick calendar grid labeled by the days of the week with what mom and dad each propose. This is a highly effective tool because you might think "alternate weekends and Wednesday night dinner" doesn't sound so bad. Draw it. You'll see that the child will go seven days (twice a month!) without seeing dad at all. That's an eternity to a young child accustomed to having dad around every day. Not only is drawing a persuasive tool for a reluctant "old school" attorney or judge, but many times mom will be persuaded as well. After all that's seven straight days of no help from dad!
5. Cautiously extend the olive branch to your children's mom. At the end of the day, once the lawyers are paid, the court hearings are over and the dust settles, you and your ex will be co-parenting your children. A horrible custody battle can set a toxic model for the rest of this long-term relationship. Be reasonable and even giving on certain issues that are important to her. The long-term payoff might be a positive co-parenting relationship -- and that will directly benefit you and your kids.
This blog is also published at The Divorce Artist.