What to Expect at a Custody Hearing

More than one-fourth of children and young adults under the age of 21 have one parent that lives outside of their household. In other words, over a quarter of our young population has undergone the battle for custody.

If you, as a parent, are preparing for a custody hearing, it’s important to know what to expect. What will the judge want to know? How will the judge make their final decision?

Knowing what to expect from a custody hearing is the best way to reach an agreement that works for you, your child, and your child’s other parent.

Read on to learn everything you need to know about your child custody hearing.

Before the Hearing: Creating a Parenting Plan

Before the custody hearing begins, you will need to create a parenting plan. A parenting plan is the first step in establishing permanent custody and partial custody, although it must be finalized by the judge before it goes into effect. If you and the other parent of your child do not agree on a parenting plan, you will both need to make separate parenting plans to present during your hearing.

A parenting plan is a comprehensive plan that establishes the parenting schedule for your child for every day of the year. It should include the following:

  • How many days of the week the child will spend with each parent (and which days)
  • How the parents will handle holidays and vacations
  • Transportation arrangements for the child (i.e. to and from school, extracurricular activities, and other relatives’ homes)
  • Where the child will be dropped off and picked up when going from one parent’s custody to the other’s
  • Acceptable ways that the parents may contact their child when the child is with the other parent

In the event that your parenting plan does not line up with the plan created by the other child, the judge will assess the overall situation and relevant laws. This will help them create a final parenting plan that both parents will have to adhere to.

Additional Steps to Take Before the Custody Hearing

Depending on where you live, you may need to look into custody laws for unmarried parents. Some states may require proof of paternity if the parents were never married.

It is also important to show up to your custody hearing in a professional manner. Dress appropriately and maintain a professional demeanor throughout the hearing.

How Long Do Custody Hearings Take?

While the battle for custody can be long and drawn out, the actual custody hearing tends to be fairly short. In fact, most custody hearings take about two hours. If you are simply revisiting your previous custody agreement or both parents are on the same page, the custody hearing could take as little as 20 minutes.

What Happens During a Child Custody Hearing?

During a child custody hearing, the judge will expect to hear from both parents (unless one parent does not show up, in which case they are forfeiting even partial custody). The parents will be expected to testify individually in order to establish their right to custody.

It is important to answer any questions asked by the judge directly. If your response to a question begins to deviate from the subject at hand, the judge will ask you to stop.

If it appears that one parent is trying to slander the other to gain full custody, the judge will object. Unless the other parent has exhibited dangerous or concerning behaviors, it is best to speak only to your ability to care for the child, not to the other parent’s inadequacies.

What the Judge Will Take Into Consideration When Establishing Custody

Custody doesn’t just establish who will have the child most frequently. It also establishes who can make important decisions for the child regarding things like health, education, religion, and more. While assessing your case, it is the judge’s responsibility to approve a parenting plan that is in your child’s best interest.

In order to establish what is in a child’s best interest, the judge will consider:

  • The child’s relationship with both parents
  • The child’s relationship with any siblings (including half- or step-siblings)
  • Each parent’s ability to provide a safe and nurturing environment for the child
  • Each parent’s understanding of the child’s specific and general needs
  • The home environment provided by both parents
  • The stability, mental health, and physical health of both parents
  • The schedule and availability of both parents regarding things like work, other caregiving roles, and more
  • The continuity of the child’s day-to-day life

The last factor is particularly important if the parents don’t live near one another or one parent intends to move. It is often considered the best practice to allow the child to remain in the same school district and neighborhood. If a parent looking for custody intends to move out of the city or state, they will need to establish that this move will be tangibly beneficial for the child.

(It is also worth noting that moving is one of the reasons you may need to return for a renewed custody hearing in the future. If your move will affect the parenting schedule as it is finalized, you will need to involve a judge in this process.)

Prepare for Your Custody Hearing and Protect Your Rights and Your Child

Going through a custody hearing isn’t always easy. When you have temporary custody or emergency custody over your child, getting through the custody hearing can become even more daunting. Preparing for what to expect is the best way to protect your rights and your child.

Looking for more parenting advice, tips, or guides? Take a look around to find information about everything from parenting laws to fun activities to try out this summer.