Welcome to the Ayo & Iken legal roundtable. We tackle the toughest legal issues with down-to-earth commentary you can use from our expert panel of attorneys from Tampa Bay to Orlando.
In this edition, we examine what not to do if you are fighting in court to spend time with your child. As you will find from our discussion with our panel of attorneys, many people believe that what they say in court is the single driving factor as to how a judge will come down in deciding on child time-sharing issues. In this in-depth roundtable, however, a consensus developed that what a person does when it comes to their children outside the courtroom during day-to-day life is going to carry the most weight with a judge, and there are many things a client can do to sabotage their chances at sharing more of those precious moments, hours, days, with their children.
I talked about these issues with our Tampa Attorneys Alberto Ayo, Jeana Vogel, and Kristal Knox; New Port Richey Attorneys Bruce Przepis and Allison Belcher; Orlando Attorneys Jason Ponder, Jennifer Schulte, and Beth Clause; and St. Petersburg/Clearwater Attorney Claudia Blackwell.
Are there ways that people tend to sabotage their child custody cases with their behavior in a judge’s eyes?
We certainly see it all the time. Disparaging the other parent is something a judge will always frown upon; not encouraging the relationship of a child with the other parent. Behaving in a petty manner when it comes to scheduling visitation is never positive. Using the child as a weapon to inflict emotional pain on the other parent is intolerable. Parents need to behave like parents and not like children.
I definitely think hiding your child away from the other parent or hiding their whereabouts, keeping them from another parent where there is no communication is the biggest thing you can do to go wrong. The courts want to see both sides co-parent, so if the court sees that one side is blatantly not trying to co-parent I think the judges really look bad upon that parent.
Putting your needs before the child. Talking negatively about the other parent is another major mistake that can be very harmful to a child. Coaching a child as to what to do and what to say to where the child is using adult language that is not consistent with the child’s age is another red flag for judges. Just not being there; not being around; not being at the child’s extra-curricular activities; not knowing the child’s teachers; not knowing your child’s friends; not knowing the life and loves of your child, what they enjoy doing. What is their favorite book? It all adds up to a picture of a lack of involvement in your child’s life that can hurt you. A lot of times people will come in and say to me, ‘I want majority or equal access.’ But they don’t have a history of being there. That will usually sabotage you if changes are not made. However, there is hope because taking steps during the case to start being there will allow you in the courts eyes to start rehabilitating yourself when it comes to time-sharing.
Drinking around your children, using drug around your children, or neglecting them will certainly sabotage child time-sharing. Being unreliable as far as not picking up your children, not showing up to school conferences, not communicating with the teachers is a problem. You can’t come to a court and say I want custody and not be involved with your child.
Not supporting your child is another big one. If the children are with your wife and you are making decent money and you are not providing child support for the children; that sends a very bad message to the judge.
Judges do not like it when a parent does things on a unilateral basis; not co-parenting with the other side. Doing something like putting a child in counseling when the other parent does not agree to it or know about it is really something a court will frown upon. The courts will view that as trying to get an upper hand against the other parent. If you attend the counseling session, the children are also hearing only one side, so that is something the courts discourage.
Will it hurt your case if you blow off spending time the court granted you spend with your child?
I would say a good way to sabotage your child custody case is not using the time allotted to you by the court with your child. If you are allowed to spend every other weekend with your child and you end spending one weekend a month with your child and the other parent documents that and tells the court about it, you can hurt your case.
What if a new girlfriend, boyfriend, or significant other enters the picture. How might a court view that?
That does happen, even if a divorce is not final yet. It shows the court you aren’t putting the children first if a third party is thrown in a child’s face. If you are bringing a boyfriend or girlfriend into a situation that is so emotional anyway, in my experience, you don’t want to force that interaction. I have being seeing that more and more these days. I tell clients it’s selfish on their part. The children are healing; they are trying to cope with this divorce. Bringing in a boyfriend or girlfriend before the divorce is even completed is a no-no and it can definitely hurt their time-sharing.
If you have any kind of significant other in your case, the step parent or boyfriend regardless of what the label may be, making that person the emergency contact instead of the other parent can look bad. Inserting somebody in place of the parent, that will sabotage your case. Don’t restrict or alienate the child from another parent. Not telling the other parent about a vacation or leaving the child with a babysitter to be out with someone else is not a good idea.
There is another side of the coin, though, with post-divorce child time-sharing issues where a parent tries to prevent a significant other from having a role in a child’s life. I see cases where one parent has taken on a boyfriend and girlfriend and the other parent will go to the court and say, ‘I don’t want my child around that third person, that new boyfriend or girlfriend.’ It’s really common and really what they are doing it trying to get at the other parent by using that child and luckily every time I have seen that happen, the courts have ruled against it. It ends up making that parent look bad by showing you are trying to use the child.
How much does what you say in court mean compared to evidence presented of your behavior outside court?
Probably the most important thing in my experience is how the parent has acted as opposed to what they say. People can in the court, take an oath, and say all sorts of things they believe are going to benefit their case. But I think most judges are more interested in what the parties’ actions have been. How have they treated the other party? Have they treated the other party with respect, or contempt? Have they demonstrated through their actions that they can put aside their negative feelings for the other side, not be petty, and put their children first before their own wishes? Unfortunately, in the business I work in I often find people who can’t do that. They have so much contempt for the other party that they can’t think logically. They are decent people but can’t get past the bad feelings that have been generated as a result of divorce, custody, or litigation.
Everything that you do and everything you say can be thrown at you. It’s very important not to let your anger or your emotions dictate your actions. You can be angry, but if you expose that anger and you use that anger to take time-sharing away from an individual you will create problems for yourself. If you use that anger to say things to the child that are detrimental to the other individual those things do and will come back to bite you. The main thing to remember is the child should never become part of a custody battle. The child should be first and foremost and your emotions should take a back seat.
That wraps up today’s roundtable discussion. Be sure to look around our website for more in-depth articles on child testimony. Meanwhile we hope to see you come back to the Ayo and Iken roundtable.
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