Last week I started a 3-part series on incorporating strategy in Family Court appearances. The goal is to show you how having a solid game plan enables you to position your case advantageously. Last week I focused on the first court appearance in custody or divorce, the Initial Conference. This week’s focus is on using the Family Court appearance that follows the Initial Conference, the Family Court Status Conference as part of creating your strategy.

What the Family Court Appearance Status Conference Is

A status conference, in divorce or custody, gives the parties the chance to update the court on what has occurred since additional documents have been filed, to follow up on how temporary orders are working, or to check-in whether certain conditions have been met. The court will want to know how things have been going with respect to visitation to see if things can be resolved without a trial. If at the last court appearance either of the parties was self-represented, the court will want to know if that party(ies) hired a lawyer.

If the judge ordered certain procedural things, like a drug/alcohol screening, a mental health evaluation, or a home investigation, it would follow up with whether those things have been done. Also, if a GAL has been appointed, then the court will want to know the status.

The Goal of the Family Court Status Conference

Family Court, like most other courts, has an interest in saving time and resources. This means that the judge will always aim to get the parties to settle their case.  Family Court appearance Status Conference in custody or divorce is slightly different than the Initial Conference. The court’s hope is that by employing the tactics or measures mentioned above, they will flush out the perceived issues from the real ones. A custodial parent who insists that the noncustodial parent is incapable of taking care of their child for more than a few hours may realize that that’s not a real concern. The court will examine resolution tactics outside of a trial, like mediation. If the court decides on an alternative dispute resolution, it will set dates for the parties to adhere to.

A Discovery plan might also be discussed at a status conference. This usually entails setting rules & restrictions on Discovery as well as a timeline for the exchange of Discovery.

The last major thing to be addressed in a status conference is overall scheduling. In addition to setting dates for mediation and Discovery, the court will also set a deadline for any motions or amendments to petitions. In addition, the court might establish a pretrial conference date and a trial date.

The process for the status conference might differ when both parties and one party is self-represented. The court will try to encourage pro se litigants to get an attorney at this stage of the case with the thinking that they’d be more inclined to settle.

Using this Family Court Status Conference Strategically

This is the time to use what you have gathered outside of the courtroom, because of the court’s directions, to your advantage. In other words, the orders the court issued, the procedures the judge directed, etc. all offer you vantage points that didn’t exist before. You might have had suspicions about some issues that question the other party’s “fitness” as a parent. Or questions about the safety conditions of the other party’s home. Or speculation about the mental or physical health of the other parent. Either way, the status conference is the ideal time to gauge the court’s position on these specific issues. If, for instance, you mentioned your concern about drug abuse and the judge ordered drug screenings, then this shows that the judge takes this issue seriously. How many times have you raised concerns in court that were dismissed by the judge, often I bet? But if the judge thinks the issue, you raise has some semblance of merit, they will respond accordingly.

The other strategic way to use the Status Conference is by incorporating the information you acquired to help you decide if you should settle or proceed to trial. At this stage of your case, there have been several discussions about settling at least a portion of your case. However, having the results of tests or investigations only helps you to make a much more informed decision when it comes to negotiations.

And last, if you are pro se (self-represented) you can learn a lot about the court process, the laws, and the local procedures at the status conference. You should always be on full alert, listening, watching, and taking mental notes.

In Conclusion

Every stage of your case offers some advantage as it progresses along. You might see going to court as a war zone, triggering all sorts of emotion, while I see it as an opportunity. Any time you are in an environment where you can learn the opposing party’s objective, you should see it as a potential advantage.

My new Pro Se Family Court Membership Program is the perfect solution to your custody or divorce situation.  Having a solid game plan that focuses on using strategy can make or break your case.  Interested in the details? Check here.

 

Child Custody Arrangements

 

Many parents are struggling with a multitude of issues surrounding Covid and co-parenting.  Parents are overwhelmed with things that were once immaterial or non-existent pre-Covid.  Things like virtual schooling vs. in person school, public outings vs. staying home and so on.  Being a divorce coach, I can not keep up with the number of people who ask about the possible outcomes of not complying with child custody arrangements and orders.


Using Discovery in Divorce and Child Custody


Understanding Your Child Custody Arrangements or Order

If you have a custody agreement or custody order, you need to know how it should be interpreted & followed considering Covid.  Most custody documents clearly state directive with respect to visits, education, medical but not much more than that with respect national emergencies like the current one. Even though “the best interests of the child” factors served as the basis for the custody order, that may not be so easy now.

 

It is not easy to discern what is best for kids when fear is imminent and rampant.  Parents are overwrought with confusion, and rightfully so. The one thing that should be clear though, that is that a custody agreement is a court order and should be complied with no matter what. But what if compliance puts the child(ren) and their loved ones at risk?  This does not excuse violating the order, but depending on the specific facts of the case, may explain it.

 

Disagreements with the Custody Arrangement in Emergency Situations

The “best interests of the child” factors are based on the same principles no matter the circumstances of the case.   This means that the court will weigh what is in the child(ren)’s physical, mental and emotional well-being. However, though parents generally want what is best for their child(ren), what they think is best for them is subjective especially in emergency situations.

Parents can have a difference in opinion concerning education, health, discipline, etc. and still be suited to be parents.  And in cases where there is a formal custody arrangement, disagreements in unanticipated event can come up.

In an ideal world, these disputes would be resolved amongst the parents.  But unfortunately, there is hardly anything ideal about family law.  From a court’s perspective though, it is important that “families” work together to hash out things related to their family.  At a minimum, judges expect parents to make every attempt to settle disagreements without court intervention.

 

Getting the Court to Intervene during a Pandemic

Seeking court intervention should be the last resort under normal circumstances, let alone a national crisis.  Most courts are still operating on a limited basis and capacity.  In fact, the method you choose to proceed in court can determine how and if your application is “heard”.  Some courts are forcing parties to postpone anything not considered an emergency.  Other courts are going a step further by prioritizing the emergencies.  Either way, unless your issue is urgent, you may be forced to settle it yourselves anyway.

Under normal circumstances, there are two ways to proceed in court when there is a disagreement about custody.  One method is to file a Motion to Modify Custody, the other is to file a Motion for Violation/Contempt of a Custody Order or Agreement.   Guess which one will get you into court right now?

 

Consequences of Filing a Motion for Violation/Contempt

If a parent files a Motion for Violation or Contempt against the other for not following the child custody arrangements the consequences can be harsh.  For instance, if a custodial parent withholds visits from the other due to exposure risks, the court can impose civil or criminal contempt sanctions, change custody, or impose financial fees.  Even in light of what is going on right now, the court can and will exercise its authority to penalize the violating parent.  Furthermore, the factors the court considers to make the determination will be cumulative.  So, in other words, a parent who blatantly chooses to disregard the order may be punished more harsh than one who attempts to work with the other parent.

 

Sum it Up

You are taking your chances either way.  What consequences are you prepared to live with?  How can you avoid the threats or minimize the risks?  Think long and hard about your options.

 

By Tracey Bee, The Divorce Solutionist