Why your first Court date is the MOST important!
Does this sound familiar: I’ll handle my Court hearing on my own and if it doesn’t go as planned, then I’ll think about hiring a lawyer?
Sorry to tell you but that plan is backwards!
You’re probably wondering why. Because:
YOUR FIRST COURT HEARING IS THE MOST IMPORTANT ONE!
First, your first court hearing sets the stage and the tone for the rest of your case. Second, your legal burden will never be this low again. When custody and parenting time is initially decided, the courts use a legal standard called the best interest of the children. You’ve probably heard of this before. That requires the Court to consider several factors before making its decision regarding custody or parenting time. (You can find a list of those factors here. For more information, you can read the statute in full here.).
Now, this does not mean that the Court doesn’t consider the best interest of the child anytime you try to change custody or parenting time. But at that time, you have an additional hurdle to overcome.
Before the Court will even consider whether it’s in the best interest of the child to change custody or parenting time, you first must prove to the Court there’s been a substantial change in circumstances since the last time custody or parenting time was addressed.
Not simply any change will do because not every little change is substantial. For instance, although it’s completely unfair, in NJ, you cannot increase your parenting time just because you want to spend more time with your child. I know, crazy right?! Frankly, I think that should be enough of a reason to increase your parenting time, but the lawmakers didn’t agree.
So, what exactly does a substantial change in circumstances look like?
Well here’s a few examples of what is, and is not, a substantial change of circumstances.
Either parties’ work schedule changed and the prior parenting time schedule no longer works;
Your child is now in school and the prior parenting time schedule no longer works;
Your child is now in activities (afterschool, recreational, etc) and the prior parenting time schedule no longer works;
You and the other party agree to change the schedule;
You and the other party changed the schedule on your own a long time ago but never came to court to update the court order; or
The other party moved farther away and now the prior schedule no longer works.
You want more time with your child;
Your child asked you to spend more time with her/him;
The other parent refuses to give you more time (other than what is court ordered) when you ask;
The other parent is violating the order or interfering with (i.e. cancelling, starting late or ending early) your parenting time;
These lists are just an example and don’t include every situation. And I know, the situations that fall into the IS NOT category should without a doubt fall into the IS category. I hear you! So, what can you do to avoid this situation?
Here’s a few tips:
Understand the importance of the initial hearing. Many times, parents go into the initial hearing and accept anything with the intention of coming back later to fight for more. Don’t do that. Fight for as much as possible at the first hearing!
Be prepared. You have the links for the factors above. Print out the factors. Organize your arguments. Be prepared to explain to the Court why those factors support you having every weekend or every other week or whatever schedule you want.
Ask for your best-case scenario. Don’t be afraid. Don’t let the fear of not getting it scare you away from even asking for it. Who knows, you could get it! Don’t start small and then find yourself fighting for months (or years) trying to get more time. Ask for as much as possible at the start!
Now that you have an idea of why your first hearing is so important, another thing to consider:
Hire, or at least consult with, an experienced attorney.
If reading those factors has your head spinning, your heart racing or you already think of waiting even longer to try to change your parenting time, it doesn’t have to be that way.
Let me take the stress off you so that you can focus on what’s important: enjoying every minute of time with your child.
The contents on this blog entry are provided for informational purposes only. This does not constitute legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship. You should consult with an attorney to determine how the law applies to the facts of your particular case.