This is another question in my periodic series of common questions from clients. The short answer to how fathers can win custody is: the same way mothers do. There is often still a perception that women automatically always win custody. That is not true. Mothers still end up with custody more often than fathers, but in contested cases that is not necessarily true. While there are still a few judges who automatically favor mothers, there are many other judges who bend over backwards to be fair to both sides. Juries in Texas don’t shy away from awarding custody to the more deserving parent, male or female.
The easiest way for a father to get primary custody of a child is to do so through negotiations. Sometimes both parents will agree that the father is the more appropriate parent for primary custody because he is in better financial shape or has more time available or has a better relationship with the child, or for some other reason. Sometimes the parents work out creative arrangements that fit the schedules of both parents and the child. Collaborative Law is very helpful in setting up customized plans for sharing time with a child.
The question, though, really refers to those cases where the parties can’t reach an agreement. For those cases, I offer the following seven tips to win custody. They will work for fathers or mothers.
1. Be the primary caregiver. The parent who has always, or recently, been the primary parent taking care of the child does have an advantage with judges and juries, unless the parenting has not benefited the child. When the child is thriving, the primary caregiver has an advantage.
2. Be involved at school and home. This is more than just being present for a time period. Help with homework. Give encouragement to the child. Play with the child. Talk with your child. Read to or with your child. Have meals together. Volunteer and help at school. Keep up with your child’s grades and homework. Get to know the teachers and Principal. Know about and deal with any problems when they first show up. Get to know your child’s friends and their parents.
3. Be good with kids. Don’t be afraid of kids. Loosen up and have fun with them. Be able to talk with other kids. Participate with kids whenever and wherever you can. It’s OK to act like a kid sometimes, but don’t go so far that you give up appropriate parental authority. Share interests and activities with your child.
4. Be cooperative with the other parent. Be flexible in sharing time with the parent. Share information about activities and plans. Try to help each other where you child benefits. Some parents lose custody when they unreasonably refuse to cooperate to share time with the kids. Children normally benefit when the parents get along. Avoid negativity, blame and name-calling about the other parent, even when you may think it is justified. Take the adult role and set a good example for your child and the other parent. Remember, you may need a favor some day (or weekend).
5. Speak positively of the other parent and be supportive of them. Making critical comments about the other parent when your child is around is inappropriate, even when you are convinced the remarks are “the truth”. Since your child is part you and part the other parent, attacking the other parent can feel like an attack on the child. It is much better to take the high road and refrain from negativity when the child is around. It’s the same advice you have probably given your child to help him or her deal with peers.
6. Be knowledgeable about parenting. This takes some effort. We aren’t usually born with innate knowledge of how to be a good parent. Some learn this as they grow up. Others may not have spent much time (at least recently) around kids, so they need to learn what to do. They can read, take classes and get help from experienced parents. Good parents are constantly learning more about kids, especially as their kids mature and move into new stages of development.
7. Follow the court orders. It’s a serious mistake to violate visitation orders, by either the primary or non-primary custodian. Improperly keeping the kids from the other parent never looks good to the court or a jury. Failure to exercise visitation or possession times allocated to you create doubts about how seriously you want to have primary custody. It’s also hard to ask the court to award custody to a parent who regularly does not properly pay child support. If the visitation order or child support amount needs to be changed, try to negotiate or file a motion to change it, but don’t just take matters into your own hands. Lack of obedience to an order usually has a negative impact on your child, can result in incarceration of the offender and creates a negative impression of you with the decision-maker in a custody case. It’s important to comply with court orders as long as they are in place.
These seven tips are all factors often relied on by judges or juries who are deciding custody questions. They all start and end with being a good parent.