Court appearances regarding any issue can be frightening. But when it comes to a trial pertaining to the custody of your children, your emotions and fears can be amplified. However, knowing what to expect before diving right in can help you feel prepared and ready for what’s to come.
When Does a Child Custody Case Go to Court?
There are multiple ways that child custody and parenting time can be decided. In general, the family law system is designed in a way to let parents work out custody arrangements and disagreements on their own.
This is often done with a family law attorney or qualified mediator who can work with both parties amicably to negotiate a parenting plan that meets many of the intended goals of both parents while keeping the children’s best interests as a top priority.
While some parents are able to agree on parenting terms and conditions regarding raising their children in separate households without having to go to court, other parents may run into obstacles during this process. Conflicts may arise if the parents don’t share the same ideas about how to raise their children; some common areas of conflict include:
Other issues, such as a history of domestic violence, move-away situations, or general custody modifications, are also common reasons why custody and parenting cases go to trial.
What Happens at a Child Custody Trial?
The process starts when one parent files a petition for custody or for modifying a current custody arrangement. The filing parent will then receive a court date (return date) and the other parent will receive a summons to appear.
The initial court appearance is not the trial, but instead, an opportunity for the court to see if the respondent was properly served. The judge will listen to each party’s initial statements to see what their positions are and whether the case can be settled without a trial. If the two parties cannot agree, the judge will most likely set a temporary visitation schedule and set a court date for a follow-up status conference. An attorney may be appointed to represent the child/children’s interests in the custody case.
There will likely be several status conferences scheduled in the months that follow to give the parties an opportunity to negotiate a settlement and to permit parties to father relevant evidence to prepare for trial. This phase is called the pre-trial period. Ultimately if after several status conferences a settlement cannot be reached, and after all relevant evidence has been obtained, trial dates will be scheduled.
Throughout the pre-trial period, you and your attorney will gather compelling and relevant evidence, prepare witnesses and testimony, and discuss what will happen in court. During the pre-trial period, you should not discuss your case on social media or do anything that the other parent could use as evidence against you in court.
In New York family law courts, judges, not juries, are the ones that ultimately make the final decisions and decide child custody between two parents in the “best interests of the child.” Your child custody attorney will keep this in mind when presenting the evidence during the trial.
When trial begins, the petitioning party will first be given the opportunity to make an opening statement, followed by the responding party. Sometimes lawyers will choose to waive their rights to an opening statement and instead opt to let the evidence speak for itself. This is a strategic decision to be made after considering the details of each particular case.
The length of the trial will depend on the complexity of the case as well as the number of witnesses called to give testimonies. The entire process can take anywhere from several hours to a week or more; some of the trial dates may not be back to back.
The witnesses will also be asked questions by the other party’s attorney in a cross-examination. Additionally, the judge may have their own questions for the witnesses that they will ask during the testimonies or at the end of the questioning.
At the close of all of the testimonies, closing arguments will be made; these statements will summarize what facts were and were not shown during the trial and what applicable laws and precedents should dictate the outcome. The judge may make a decision right at the end of trial, or send a decision at a later time.
How Can I Prepare for a Child Custody Trial?
Attending court for your custody trial can be stressful and scary, especially if you have never been through a trial experience before. When the big day arrives, you want to ensure that you make the best impression possible to maximize your chances of the judge ruling in your favor. Here are some efficient and effective court tips for when your child custody trial date finally arrives:
- Be on time. Try to arrive early to the courthouse if you can and allow extra time for traffic and other delays.
- Dress neatly and conservatively. You are not required to dress a certain way, but it’s recommended that you wear business/business casual attire if possible and avoid wearing shorts, tank tops, halter tops, or shirts that show your midriff.
- Be respectful. Address the judge as “your honor,” “sir,” or “ma’am” and don’t interrupt the judge or other side; only speak with you are spoken to.
- Tell the truth. Lying under oath is considered perjury and is illegal; always tell the truth during your testimony and encourage your witnesses to do the same.
- Ask for clarification when needed. If you are confused about a question, ask for it to be reworded or for more clarification and admit when you don’t know an answer.
- Know what you will say. While you may not know all the questions that will come your way, make sure you understand your position on key legal and factual issues so you are ready to present your side in court.
- Bring a notepad. It’s a good idea to take notes during the trial and write down things as they occur in court.
- Hire the right child custody attorney. Getting the right person to represent you is key to obtaining the best possible outcome.
Should I Get an Attorney?
When it comes to your child custody case, you never want to take any chances and attempt to do everything on your own. Many nuanced steps of preparation must be completed and it’s always recommended that you hire a seasoned child custody attorney who has previous experience guiding individuals through the custody trial process.
Our Long Island child custody attorneys have extensive experience assisting individuals who cannot settle on custody arrangements outside of court. We work with many of the local family law courts on Long Island, which gives us an advantage because we know the preferences and styles of many of the local judges and how they tend to rule in court.
Contact Wisselman, Harounian, & Associates at (516) 773-8300 to speak with our Long Island child custody attorneys for free today.