Major Mistake to Avoid in Custody Disputes

>If you are trying to obtain custody of your children (called Parental Rights and Responsibilities in Vermont), there is one major mistake to avoid. Many parents believe that they must prove that the other parent is unfit in order to obtain custody, so they focus on the other parent’s failings. In a divorce or parentage action, that is easy to do, as the parties are usually not happy with each other and can easily find fault with the other parent. However, Vermont Title 15 section 665, which outlines the factors a court reviews in determining custody, contains a factor that must be reviewed and taken seriously by every parent in a custody dispute. The factor is as follows: “The ability and disposition of each parent to foster a positive relationship and frequent and continuing contact with the other parent, including physical contact, except where contact will result in harm to the child or to a parent.”

Thus, unless the other parent is abusive to you or abusive or neglectful to your children, it is not a good idea to disparage the other parent as a part of presenting your case to the court. If you do, it may backfire, as the court may find you are unable to foster a positive relationship between the children and their other parent.

Similarly, you should make every effort to provide contact between the children and the other parent. If you limit contact, and the court finds no good reason for you to limit such contact, then the court may award the other parent custody.

Limiting contact with the other parent is also generally not good for your children. Children lose a great deal in a divorce–stability, family traditions, family routines, to name a few–and losing contact with their other parent adds greatly to their sense of loss.

Parents in custody and parent child contact disputes often tell the court that their children do not want to see the other parent. That representation can have the opposite effect of what you intend. Judges have heard hundreds of times parents tell them that their children do not want to see the other parent. Unless you have concrete reasons for the children to say they don’t want to visit, judges often assume it is because you are encouraging, either overtly or subconsciously, the children’s attitude towards the other parent. The courts know that children will often tell you what you want to hear, and if you feel devastated and betrayed by the other parent, the children will certainly pick up on your feelings. So children often want to make you feel better by saying they do not want to see the other parent.

Here are some tips for fostering a positive relationship between you children and the other parent:

  • Any disputes you have with the other parent should be out of earshot of your children
  • Do not disparage the other parent in front of the children, and tell your family not to do so either (Your family is often more angry at the other parent than you are.)
  • Try to be cooperative and flexible regarding parent child contact.
  • Try to work out issues regarding the children, such as house rules and after school activities, with the children’s other parent; and then present a united front, if possible regarding the issues. (This is good advice for any parent, but especially parents who are separated.)
  • If custody is going to be contested, be prepared to offer a reasonable parent child contact schedule to the court. The parent who offers a more generous parent child contact schedule to the other parent often has a better chance of obtaining custody, all other things being equal.
  • Be prepared to testify about the other party’s good parenting qualities.
  • In your testimony, focus on the children and their needs, not on your grievances with the other parent.