In New York, custody and visitation are based on a "best interests of the child" analysis. Therefore, it is extremely important, as a parent seeking custody or visitation, to act in a way that conveys you have your child or children's best interests at heart. Listed below are several behaviors that you must, or, in other cases, should never, engage in during custody litigation.
DO: Everything In Your Power to See Your Children As Much As Possible.
If you are seeking custody of or visitation with your children, it is imperative that you spend lots of time with them. Spending time with your children not only strengthens the parent-child bond, but shows the court that you are willing to put in the time and effort that goes into parenting. If your spouse or ex is trying to keep you from seeing the children, do not be afraid to express this to the attorney for the child(ren) or the court. If you live far away from your child(ren), make sure that you see them as often as possible under the circumstances, and make sure to keep in touch by calls, email, Facebook, and video chat, depending on their age.
DON'T: Reschedule or Cancel Visits and Time with Your Children.
Emergencies happen, but barring that, it is important to show the court that you are reliable and responsible. This means coming to pick up your children on time (or being there when they are supposed to be dropped off), keeping to the agreed-upon schedule, and above all, not disappointing them or disturbing their routine by cancelling or moving around the time you are supposed to spend with and be taking care of them.
DO: Have Fun with Your Children During the Time You Spend Together.
Make sure to spend quality time with your children when you have them with you. A parent who is constantly on their phone or computer, or focusing on other people such as a new love interest during visits, does not look good to the court. Take your children to restaurants, the park, play with, or watch movies with them.
DON'T: Forget to Also Parent.
Although no parent wants to be the "bad guy" especially during divorce litigation, it is important that when your children are with you that you help them with or ensure they do their schoolwork, make sure they eat properly, and set boundaries with respect to the activities they engage in. It is important to show the court that you are aware and capable of both the fun and difficult aspects of parenting.
DO: Be Willing to Cooperate with Your Ex.
One of the crucial factors that courts consider in making custody determinations is the willingness of the each parent to make sure that the children and the other parent have a healthy relationship. This means that no matter how you feel about your ex, you must be civil with respect to scheduling time with the kids and coordinating their activities. It is also important to work together on decision-making for issues such as health and education.
Courts will typically only award custody where parents can get along (with respect to raising their kids). Even if you can only communicate by email or text, be polite and careful. If there is a major issue, bring it to the court's attention in a calm manner.
DON'T: Try to Alienate or Keep the Other Parent Away from Your Children.
Parents who try to damage or destroy their children's relationship with the other parent are likely to lose custody in court proceedings. Barring unusual circumstances such as domestic violence or neglect, courts view it as being in the best interest of the child to have a close relationship with BOTH of their parents. Therefore, the parent who shows a greater willingness to foster the relationship between their children and the other parent has an advantage. What this means is don't speak badly about the other parent, deny visitation with the other parent, or interfere in the relationship. Even if your children are angry at their other parent and don't want to see them, do everything you can to encourage the relationship.
DO: Prepare Evidence.
If you genuinely believe that your ex is dangerous or unfit to care for your children, put together documentation showing this for the court. This can include text messages, written and sworn statements from other people, police reports, etc.
DON'T: Make Unfounded Accusations.
If you think there may be an issue, do everything you can to obtain evidence of this behavior. Or, go through appropriate channels such as a school counselor or the child's therapist or doctor, if applicable. Never make false or baseless reports. No matter how angry you may be with your ex, this can do substantial harm to not only your custody case, but your children's mental health.
KEEP YOUR KIDS OUT OF THE CONFLICT!
In custody litigation, the most important thing is to make sure your children do not feel like they are in a tug of war. Do not ask them who they want to live with, how they feel about the other parent, or try to guilt them into seeing your point of view. When you and your ex do not agree on issues involving the children, present a united front to them until it is resolved, even if that resolution occurs in a courtroom. Additionally, do not share details of the case with them. Your children do not need to hear from you about affairs, refusals to pay for support and maintenance, or fighting over the marital residence. What they do need is a parent who shows love, understanding, and care, and who makes a difficult situation as bearable as possible.
If you follow these guidelines, you are more likely to appear reasonable and responsible to the court. Such an impression goes far in getting the kind of custody and visitation with your children that you are seeking.