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Why won’t courts test competing custody and parent-time proposals during the pretrial phase of a case?

Do you want to know where the real money is most often made in divorce and family law cases? Child custody and parent-time disputes, hands down.

Rarely do the parents agree on what the child custody and parent-time schedules should be. One parent wants (or says he/she wants) things one way, one parents wants (or says he/she wants) them another way. There are many reasons why (which could be the subject of numerous articles, even several volumes), but in a nutshell, the reasons boil down to a few main categories, and in the following order: money, spite, and genuine concern for the children. Money because one gets or pays more money depending upon how many overnights the children spend in a parent’s custody. Spite because many parents use or try to use a parent’s love for his/her children to wound that parent emotionally and psychologically by scheming to deprive parent and child of spending time together. And finally, sometimes (rarely) there is a genuine dispute over whether a parent is fit to exercise the amount of custody and parent-time he/she seeks.

Because there are so often ulterior motives behind a parent’s proposed custody and/or parent-time schedule, the true test of what schedule realistically subserves the best interest of the children is not (cannot be) which parent is the most credible. That’s way too subjective and fallible a standard.

Instead, and so long as each parent’s proposed custody and/or parent-time schedule is reasonable on its face, why not try them both? Why not see whether the kids do best with one or the other or neither? Rather than determine the custody and/or parent-time schedule on pure or mostly speculative bases (i.e., “I imagine/believe/hope that this proposed, but unimplemented, untested schedule will work better than the other unimplemented, untested schedule”), why not have the court implement, compare, contrast, and test competing child custody and parent time schedules during the pretrial/pendente lite/discovery phase of a child custody and/or parent-time dispute case? That way, the court has hard, real world, case-specific, family-specific data to analyze and on which to base its custody and/or parent-time orders.

In 27 years of practice, I have never had a court implement, compare, contrast, and test competing child custody and parent time schedules during the pretrial/pendente lite/discovery phase of a child custody and/or parent-time dispute case.

As long as the conflicting proposals are not obviously deleterious to the children, it’s fairly arrogant of anyone (parent or judge) to contend that “we will implement one and only one custody and/or parent-time schedule during the months or years these proceedings are pending.” It drives me up the wall when I get to trial in those situations and the court tells me, “There is no evidence that the “temporary” schedule [that’s been in place the entire pendency of the case on the basis of nothing but a proffer hearing] does not work.” Well, of course it “works”. It “works” not because it’s best for the kids, not because it’s been shown to be the best of the proposed schedules, but because we have no idea if anything is better or worse. It’s not because the kids support it or benefit from it, they were given no other choice and no other experience. It’s maddening when courts take the position of, “I won’t order your client’s proposed schedule because you and your client never proved it works.” Of course we didn’t prove it, Your Honor—you saw to it that we couldn’t! It’s a “winning” schedule not by virtue of its merits, but by default. It was never proven best for the children, it was imposed by force of inertia. It is impossible to know whether (and thus to claim that) a decision was “in the best interest of the children” when best efforts were never made in reaching that decision.

Put the parents’ proposed competing custody and parent-time schedules to a real-world test. Implement them both for a period sufficient to give them a fair chance to prove a success or failure. Perhaps one will emerge as the clearly superior schedule. Perhaps both schedules will prove inferior to a different schedule that reveals itself in the process of comparing and testing the competing schedules against each other.

There is no good reason—from a general policy perspective—why a court could not or should not, as a general policy, implement and then compare, contrast, and test competing child custody and parent time schedules during the pretrial/pendente lite/discovery phase of a child custody and/or parent-time dispute case. Indeed, the children, parents, and court have everything to gain from such a practice and nothing to lose by adopting such a practice.

Utah Family Law, LC | divorceutah.com | 801-466-9277

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