Regardless of your circumstances, divorce proceedings are always a difficult time when kids are involved. It is challenging to keep a cool head and act rationally 100 percent of the time, but if you want to minimize the risk of losing your kids in the custody battle, that is exactly what you are going to have to do. Fathers, in particular, have to be on their best behavior because while federal and state law explicitly doesn’t favor one gender over the other, the parent who has been the primary caretaker thus far (usually the mother) is more likely to be favored by the courts.
Even if taking care of the kids was mostly your job, the custody battle can be an opportunity for either party to watch the other unravel and take advantage. So no matter what you do, remember the core tenet of any custody battle: what matters above all is what’s in the kids’ best interest. To that end, here are a dozen custody battle behaviors that can land you in hot water with the judge and cause considerable damage.
1. Interrogating Your Children
The simplest thing to avoid doing is trying to use your children as insiders on the other parent’s actions. Children are children and are just as likely to tell them about their time at mom’s place as they are to tell mom what a great time they had with dad – and what either of you said about the other. But intentionally trying to get your kids to effectively “spy” on the other party is manipulative at best and potentially abusive. Courts that catch wind of one parent trying to use their children to gain ammunition on the other parent effectively shoot themselves in the foot.
2. Getting Heated with the Other Parent
This might be the most difficult mistake to avoid. Even when mom begins intentionally provoking you into saying something rash, you must hold your tongue. Assume everything you say is being recorded or taken note of, and always watch your behavior when interacting with the other party. Most importantly, keep the kids out of it. Conversations in private between you and your ex are one thing, but getting heated while the kids are in earshot is an entirely different thing and may suggest to the courts that you have no qualms about subjecting your kids to the crossfire of a verbal fight.
3. Smearing the Other Parent
Evidence as tenuous as a recorded argument is very rarely accepted into court, and most attempts at “smearing” the other party should be wholly avoided. Do not try to use a custody battle to argue against the other parent – instead, do everything you can to cast your own parenting skills in the best possible light, and put the needs and interests of your kids above everything else. There are “exceptions” to this in cases where the other parent’s behavior is genuinely endangering your children (such as illicit drug use or physical abuse), and you have the evidence needed to inform the proper authorities in the case of this behavior.
4. Interfering with Mom’s Contact with the Kids
This is called alienation of affection and is a particularly grievous offense for any parent during a custody battle. For example, intentionally smearing the other parent, manipulating a child’s opinion of the other parent, or limiting the other parent’s contact with the kids can lead to parental alienation.
5. Getting Physical
Perhaps the greatest taboo is getting physical with the other parent. This means escalating into a full-blown fight or assault. Not only will this bar you from seeing your kids, but it can land you in jail, which makes being a parent very difficult. It is no less problematic when the other parent becomes physically abusive. If there is a history of physical altercations between you and your ex, consider only having conversations with witnesses around, or leave before things get heated.
6. Coaching the Kids on What to Say
Your kids might be great at relaying the message, but children should never be manipulated into being messenger birds during a custody battle. It is even worse when you try and tell your kids what to say or how to act during a custody investigation/evaluation.
7. Moving in With Someone New
It might seem like you are just trying to move on from the pain of your separation, but the courts might interpret moving in with your new partner to be traumatic for the children, especially so soon after the split. So wait until after the custody battle to begin approaching the idea of moving in with someone else or bringing a new stepparent into the equation.
8. Taking the Kids on a Vacation Without Prior Notice
If you take the kids out of state or out of a metropolitan area without first notifying and obtaining consent from the other parent in the middle of a custody battle, it may look like you are kidnapping your kids. This can lead to drastic consequences, including emergency orders against your visitation rights or allocated parenting time.
9. Change Your Kids’ School or Day-care Arrangements
Just as you should not schedule vacation time without informing the other parent, avoid picking your kids up at school at a whim (unless you are the primary custodian) – or more drastically, transferring them to a different school or day-care without discussing it with the other parent.
10. Outright Refusing Collaboration and Co-Parenting
When parents work out an amicable solution to the custody question, courts prefer it, one that best benefits the kids while minimizing contact or confrontation between the parents. Studies show that shared parenting solutions typically work best for kids with divorced parents. It should be noted that sole custody is not considered unless there are signs of danger or abuse.
11. Showing Up at the Mom’s Place Without Prior Consent During Their Visitation
If visitation or parenting rights and times have already been worked out by the courts pending a resolution to the custody battle, trying to violate those times by showing up before the other parent’s visitation period is over can cast a bad light on you.
12. Denying Phone Calls with Mom During Your Visitation
This falls under potential parental alienation. Unless you have evidence and reason to limit the other parent’s contact with their child, any attempt to limit contact can be interpreted as against the child’s best interest.
Some Things to Keep in Mind
Just as these infractions can count against you, they can also count against the other side. Do not be afraid to advocate for your kids but remember to toe the line. Gathering evidence of the other party’s wrongdoing or bad behavior is separate from smearing the other parent, but the line between the two is subtle.
Be sure to discuss any action you take with a family law professional before you do something drastic. Tensions can run high, and conversations can get heated, so consider everything you do and say very carefully, and always ask yourself: is what I am about to do in service of my own scorn towards this person, or is it truly in the best interest of my children, and how so?