Child custody disputes can be the hardest part of a divorce for many people. They are usually fraught with tension and emotion. Through it all, however, try to keep one thing in mind: All the court is trying to do is determine the best interests of your child(ren). That is their primary objective. The court doesn’t play favorites. They have no axe to grind. And they don’t take anything personally. So take a deep breath, relax, and keep repeating to yourself: The court only wants what’s best for my kids.
How is Best Interest Determined?
The court cannot decide what’s best for your child(ren) without gathering as much information as possible. Once one party files for divorce and the other party is served, a series of events will generally take place in a certain order. However, regardless of where you are in the process, you and your spouse can decide to come to an agreement at any time and take the decision out of the court’s hands. The court will still need to review and approve of any agreement, but an agreement can make the process faster and less painful for everyone concerned.
Step 1: Pretrial
All that happens at a pretrial is that both parties have the opportunity to tell the court what it is they are seeking. This is the court’s starting point, and from here, information must be gathered.
Step 2: Discovery
Discovery is when both parties are obligated to turn over any relevant documentation and information requested by the opposing side or the court. When discovery is specific to child custody, it will include things such as current amount of parenting time, how many appointments each parent attends, the child(ren)’s activities, and all of the details surrounding issues such as child support, tax exemptions, health insurance, and the like.
Step 3: The Guardian ad Litem (“GAL”)
A GAL is a person (usually an attorney, but not always) who is tasked with conducting an in-depth investigation of the child’s home life and compiling a report for the judge. The GAL may conduct home visits, interview family members and others who are closely involved in the child(ren)’s life, and interview the child(ren). The GAL’s objective is the same as the court’s: to determine what is in the best interest of the child(ren). While the judge must rule based on information that is provided to him or her, the GAL has the benefit of being in the home, conducting their own investigation, and seeing how and where the child is living.
Either party can request a GAL, or the court can order one. The requesting party usually must pay for the GAL upfront, unless there is a large difference in incomes. The court reserves the right to order the other party to pay for part or all of the cost of the GAL, although in reality, this is a rare occurrence. And not every child custody case will utilize the services of a GAL. Yours may or may not, and it will depend on the specifics of your case.
Step 4: The “in camera” interview
Just like the request for a GAL, either party can also request an in camera interview. Contrary to how the name sounds, this interview is not recorded in any way. The phrase “in camera” is an old Latin term that translates literally into “in chambers”, but the actual meaning of the term is “in private”. If the child is old enough to articulate their wishes with reasoning, the judge may have a confidential conversation with the child to find out what their wishes are. The exact nature of the conversation will be up to the judge, but the goal once again is to determine the best interests of the child. It doesn’t mean their wishes will be granted, but they could be given ample consideration by the judge based on what the child says. In camera interviews do not happen in every child custody battle, as many children are simply too young to have developed the ability to reason.
There are other events that may potentially transpire but are less common. One is a psychological evaluation. This might be ordered if mental health is an issue for any of the parties, or if one parent is claiming alienation or emotional abuse.
Temporary custody orders may also be issued during this time, if necessary. This can be done to establish parenting time, or if there is reason to believe a child may need to be protected from potential harm or abuse. Temporary child support orders may also be issued.
When Will it End?
Child custody disputes may take anywhere from 6 months to a year – or longer – to resolve. This is why it’s always preferable to come to an agreement with your spouse, if possible. If it’s not possible in your case, then just be prepared for the time it will take for this process to play out through the courts.
Post-Divorce: Child Custody Modification
Once the divorce is final, if at some point either party feels the child support order should be modified, it can be brought back to court. However, the party seeking to modify the order must show either a change in circumstances (for a change of custody), or prove that the current orders are no longer in the child’s best interest (as it relates to parenting time/shared parenting). The changes must be significant to be considered by the court. If that cannot be demonstrated, the case will die.
This is just a basic framework of what to expect when you’re fighting for child custody. If you have questions about your case, schedule a free consultation with a family law attorney at Kirkland & Sommers. As family law specialists practicing in Southwest Ohio for a combined 100+ years, we have fought hundreds of child custody cases for both moms and dads. We’re ready to fight for you, too, so give us a call or schedule online today, and let us help you get the justice you deserve.