How do I Prepare for a Custody Hearing?
A custody hearing is typically ordered in custody cases where the parties cannot resolve their custody dispute through mediation. In some cases, a judge may schedule a pretrial conference a few weeks before the hearing date in an attempt to discuss legal issues and make one last attempt to resolve the matter. The pretrial conference is attended by the attorneys for the litigants and sometimes (but not always) the parties. A pretrial conference typically lasts an hour and is held in the judge’s chambers – not the courtroom.
A custody hearing is held by the judge. There is no jury. A judge will decide the issues at hand after hearing all the evidence. Although there is no jury, a custody hearing is a formal proceeding. The rules of evidence apply and witnesses are sworn to tell the truth. A court reporter will transcribe the hearing and a record will be made by the attorney in case of an appeal. Evidence may come from witnesses that may include: school teachers, guidance counselors, grandparents, the parents and step parents, siblings, nephews, friends, co-workers, health care professionals, and anyone else who may provide relevant information to the court. Some witnesses may need to be subpoenaed to attend court while others may appear voluntarily. Witnesses are asked questions by the attorneys via their direct testimony and will be subject to cross examination. The judge may also ask questions of the witnesses.
It is important to discuss who you may want to call as a witness with your lawyer prior to your court date. Your lawyer may want to contact each witness beforehand in order to prepare his or her testimony for court. It may be that your lawyer decides not to call certain witnesses if their testimony isn’t helpful or is repetitive. Simply put, each witness should testify to a new fact that you want the judge to consider. Most importantly, your witnesses must be credible. A bad witness can have a disasterous impact on a case. Choose your witnesses carefully. Lastly, make sure you are honest with your attorney about your witness – good and bad. Attorneys do not like to be surprised in court – especially by their own witnesses!
If you want photographs or other documents admitted into evidence, make sure you organize them. Your attorney will be grateful and your bill will show it. You do not want your attorney to do something at $200 per hour that you could do yourself. You should also give this information to your attorney well in advance of your court date. He or she will need time to review it and figure out how best to use it in court.
On the day of your hearing, dress as you would for an important job interview. Remember to think about the question you are asked before you answer it. Do not assume the judge knows all about your case – chances are he or she knows very little. Answer the questions as best you can and speak clearly. If you do not understand a question, tell the attorney prior to answering it; otherwise, you are presumed to have understood the question when you answer it. Do not give rambling answers. Get right to the point and do not over dramatize your testimony.
Lastly, tell the truth. There is no greater threat to our justice system (and your own future) than lying under oath.
Schedule an appointment today to discuss your custody situation and get a head start on preparing for a custody hearing.