• Tue, Apr 3 2012

Splitsville: Always Be Prepared To Go Back To Family Court

child supportWelcome to Splitsville. This weekly column will focus on parenting after a divorce, break-up or one-night stand that didn’t end like a Katherine Heigl movie.

My daughter’s father and I never went to court for an official ruling on custody agreements. It was a personal choice we made and it’s resulted in a system where he can choose how involved he is in his daughter’s life. This system obviously wouldn’t work for everyone, but it’s the one we chose.

That being said, I did choose to speak with a family law attorney, simply to make sure that my daughter and I would be protected if her father decided to change our agreement later. I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t going to be in trouble in the future if he changed his mind about wanted some form of custody. The lawyer gave me one very firm piece of advice, “Record everything.”

After four years of separated parenting, I have to admit that I still keep a record of everything that happens between my ex and myself. I mark down in my day planner every time my daughter sees her dad. I make a record of any child support payments I receive, though this is pretty straight forward because I keep them in a separate savings account for my daughter’s college education. And if we get into an argument, I print out the records from my cell phone text messages and keep it all in a file. I rationalize the whole thing with a “Just in case…” mentality that excuses my obsessive record-keeping as simply following our attorney’s advice.

Recently, I was talking about my little file with another separated mother. She too had received advice to keep detailed records of interactions, visitations and money received. She too had a file thick with calendars and conversation records. For years, she’s been silently preparing, just in case she ever needs to defend herself in court.

The further into separated parenting I get, the more I wonder if we ever stop worrying about the stability of our family arrangement. After four years, you would assume that my daughter’s father would have made his move if he was really planning to sweep in and demand joint custody of our little girl. And after four years of visiting once a month, would a judge really let him switch things up now?

Yet, that lawyer’s warning hangs in the back of my mind. “Record everything,” just in case you need to defend yourself and your parenting. It’s like preparing for a parenting audit that might come at any time. Maybe it won’t matter that my daughter is happy, healthy and succeeding in school. I still might have to prove that I’m doing everything possible and deserve to retain primary custody of my little girl.

Even as I admit to my obsessive records, I wonder if I’m not dooming myself to a contentious relationship with my daughter’s father. By compiling evidence, am I tempting him to challenge me? Am I setting up a difficult confrontation that might never happen if I was simply accepting our situation and working to make it as functional and honest as possible?

It feels dishonest and petty to note down every time my daughter spends an evening with her father. I know that he has a difficult schedule to contend with and that my daughter cherishes that time together. Do I need to make a note of it in my trusty Day-At-A-Glance? By preparing for an eventual return to family court, I’m worried that I’m dooming my daughter and myself to that fate. At the same time, if his circumstances change and he chooses to change our current agreement, I would hate to be unprepared.

What do you think? Should parents always be prepared to defend themselves their custody arrangements? Do you keep records just in case you have to make a trip back to mediation?

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  • Kim

    You can never be too careful! To answer your question about would a judge change a once a month schedule – yes! My son’s father had supervised visitation weekly which he did not show up for the first 2 1/2 years of my son’s life. The minute the restraining order expired he went to court asking for every other weekend, and would you believe the judge ordered it?!?! I was supposed to send my 3 year old non-verbal (he had speech delays, now resolved) to spend the weekend with a total stranger?! I had no choice but to go along with it, and the first weekend my son came home with pneumonia and spent 10 days in the hospital including the ICU, a chest tube, PICC line, and NG tube. Moral of the story – protect yourself and your child, because family court won’t!

  • Andrea

    Heck yeah keep records!! Why wouldn’t you? No matter how amicable things are now, you never know what the future will bring.

    You keep those records and never breathe a WORD. If you never need them, have a bonfire the day she turns 18. But if something happens, they are there to protect you and your daughter.

  • Kel

    Not that I have to deal with this firsthand, but my mom was a family lawyer and then a judge in family court, so I saw it somewhat from the “other side.” In the end, I would say that the need to “defend yourself” depends on the relationship you have with your ex–some people can look beyond their own problems with each-other and really focus on the best interest of the child; some cannot (and believe me, the number of people who THINK that they’re doing the latter when they’re really more concerned about their own pride or their own control/influence over the child or making life hard for their ex far exceeds the number of people who actually DO the latter).

    In general, though, keeping copious records is a good idea because one thing my mother would say to me is that people will completely change when it comes to divorce. Divorce can cause people to go from reasonable to batshit-crazy-vindictive.

    To that end, she would actually say that you WANT a custody agreement because while it doesn’t guarantee that you’ll stay out of court, it is at least an agreement between the two parties that are actually involved and based on their preferences and their lifestyles. A good custody agreement should outline everything so that there aren’t any gray areas or disputes and they also should include clauses that address periodic renegotiation to address the child’s needs at different ages, as well as the procedure for how to go about renegotiation. As unpleasant as it is to hash out, it’s going to be much better than having a third party (i.e., the court) do it for you.

    As my mother said, “Stay out of court. No one ever leaves satisfied.”

  • Jessica

    I think it is amazing that you are keeping good records. Keep doing it! I will tell you a story from my life and tell you that at least 4 of my good friends have had the same exact thing happen to them.

    I have had custody of my 3 girls for years. My youngest is 6 and her father hadnt seen her since she was 1. He had no interest, he had no time, he had no money. I heard all the excuses in the book. So then, he gets married last year, and has a baby with his new wife. All of a sudden, I am served with custody papers. These papers were completely filled out in his wife’s (I’m assuming, since it wasn’t his) handwriting. All except for his signature, social security number and our daughters’ names, the youngest of whom he spelled incorrectly (and he’s the one who named her). 5 YEARS of doing it on my own with $284 child support from him every month (yes I am grateful he at least pays it) and here they were demanding that I hand my children over to live with them -the youngest doesn’t even know him. I got an attorney and won full custody – he has supervised visits in the state we live in. I got this because everything was documented. My friends who have had this happen to have not been so lucky. One ended up with joint custody – with a father who prior had no interest and just like in my situation had recently gotten married. The father continually backs out of visits and such but with joint custody is not responsible for child support.
    I am not saying this will happen to you – I know several people who have perfectly good relationships with their ex and such. They are careful though too – Really in the end it would be your word against his and you are right to be so careful. Just in case may never happen but if it does, you will feel so much better about it if you are ready.
    Let me make it clear that I wanted my children to have a relationship with their father. I wanted him involved. He chose not to be. I dont know his new wife, I dont even know him anymore – five years can change a person. I couldn’t imagine releasing my 6 year old to a man she would consider a stranger and a woman I never met.

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  • Adrian Casey

    I see this happening over and over again.
    When times are great, nobody pays attention to details and one of a sudden you wake up next to a monster who wants your children and nothing else but hurt you.

    I have compied a list of 5 things you should do to prepare yourself for a child custody battle:

    http://www.dvorc.com/child-custody-hearing/

    Adrian