When one party has filed for child custody, the other party may be anxious about what happens in the first hearing. The court usually sets a date for the hearing, where both parties are called to appear before the judge to present their matters. At this stage, the primary concern of the court is to promote the best interests of the child.
The court, during the first hearing may assign a Guardian ad Litem who is tasked with analyzing the situation of both parties and coming up with the best solutions that would be in the best interests of the child. This could be a healthcare professional, a lawyer, or any other expert who has the ability to look into the matter based on the nature of the case.
Both parties in the first hearing are filled with different expectations regarding how the case is likely to turn. However, if you are preparing for day 1 of a child custody hearing, you should be calm and realize nothing catastrophic will happen this day.
It can be emotional and stressful at the same time to find yourself in this situation as a parent. But you should know that, while the court does want the best for the child, they also encourage joint custody where both parties are fit to hold custody. Therefore, you should anticipate the following on the first day of the child custody hearing:
Questions of you and your ex-spouse
The judge will ask you and your ex-spouse basic questions to understand the grounds of your case and the possible solutions that are in the best interests of the child. These questions may include:
The judge wants to know the parent who is currently providing physical custody of the child.
That does not mean it will stay that way but preferably, and in most cases, parents who have physical custody of the child may have more advantages than the other parent. This does not hold if the parent is proven to have abused the rights of the child and fails to offer good care.
The judge will also ask about the current visitation schedule in place, any you have informally arranged with your ex-spouse, and how that has been effective.
The reasons for seeking a specific type of custody
The judge will ask the petitioner the reasons why he or she is seeking the specific type of custody and why he or she thinks that type of custody is in the best interests of the child.
If you are seeking sole physical custody, you will need to prove to the court why it is in the best interests of the child as opposed to joint custody.
You will need to have evidence on why you think the other parent is unfit to have the same parenting time. On the other hand, the judge may ask the respondent whether he or she is comfortable and agrees to the type of custody that the petitioner is seeking.
The judge, during the first day of the child custody hearing will want to know your current financial status. This is a question that the judge would ask both of you that helps in making decisions regarding child custody and child support.
If one parent is paying for a new residence and possibly new vehicle after a split, they might be struggling financially.
This can, at least temporarily, cause concern in the eyes of the judge. Again, the court wants stability and security for the children.
The communication status of both parents is crucial when it comes to child custody determinations.
The court is interested in knowing whether you are on good speaking terms with your ex-spouse, and how often you communicate, and over what issues. This is invaluable for a judge when making decisions regarding custody and co-parenting.
Who is more involved?
This is another question that you should expect on the first day of a child custody hearing. The judge may ask this to know which parent has been more involved than the other in making decisions regarding general parenting like driving them to appointments, social engagements, extracurricular activities, etc.
The judge will ask this to find out the parent who is more concerned with the affairs of the child. This can include who pays for school fees, medical expenses of the child, clothing, and food among other stuff.
Any substance abuse or cases of domestic violence
This question aims to determine the fitness of the parents and the judge may want to know whether there are cases of abuse or domestic violence by any of the parents.
This is definitely a question to expect on day 1 of a child custody hearing.
Testimony from the witnesses
The judge may also interview any witnesses regarding the issues that have been raised by both parents.
The witnesses may include family members, daycare workers, and teachers, psychologists, neighbors, or any other expert that may be involved in the case.
This is not a typical 1st day exercise, but be prepared just in case.
What Are the Likely Outcomes of the First Hearing?
The first-day hearing may be as short as 20 minutes in the courtroom depending on the nature of the case.
It could also last 4 hours or more in the courthouse hallways, as lawyers and parents debate several issues. After all the hearings, the judge may issue the following:
These are orders that are subject to change when the final order is issued. These orders will dictate how the children should be cared for in the meantime if the parents fail to agree on the first day of the hearing.
This normally involves the daily routine of the children staying relatively stable, without numerous disruptions while the parents settle into their new lives and parental roles.
Visitation and child support orders
The judge may issue visitation and child support orders where parents do not have a plan or if they have not agreed on any plan regarding custody and child support.
These will be temporary until made final, based on the nature of the case and whether both parties have agreed on a visitation schedule and child support.
Order for Drug Testing
For a complicated child custody case, and where there are cases of drug and substance abuse or domestic violence reported, the judge may order for drug testing.
Some courts have in-house services, otherwise the parents will be sent to a third party clinic. The test will normally involve a sample of urine, hair, or fingernail scraping.
Results take some time, days normally, and will show everything from alcohol to heroin in the system typically. Sometimes there is a fee to be paid by the parents for this service.
This may be overseen by the Guardian ad Litem who will then present the findings and possible solutions to the court.
Order Mediation / Alternative dispute resolution
If the judge finds that both parents are on good communication terms, he or she may order for a guided alternative dispute resolution through mediation or other possible means.
If mediation is preferred by the judge, the court may appoint a mediator to help the parties reach an agreement on issues that have been contested.
Order for psychological evaluation
The judge may also order for a psychological evaluation or parental capacity assessment. This is normally done when there are questions about parenting skills and the ability of each parent to take care of their children in a safe, healthy environment.
The first day of a child custody hearing is not the end of it, but rather the start.
The judge will hear from both parties in order to make informed decisions about parenting and child support among other issues that have been contested by the parents.
Stay positive, be patient with yourself and your case, and remember you are going to win this. Always look for ways to improve your case, and be open-minded when considering things that may help you in the long run.
The first day of child custody hearing is always full of anxiety and both parents are full of different expectations regarding child custody.