New Jersey Divorce Chronicles, Part 6: What about the Kids?

Children Omitted in DivorceIn part 4 and part 5 of our series, we looked at two different approaches to commencing a divorce case. One of our subjects, Sharon, took an aggressive approach. The other, Jason, started things off in a more conciliatory manner. In the next couple of installments, we’ll see how the initial tone and first steps impact the child custody aspects of these two cases. Today, we’ll look at how Sharon is faring. In the next installment, we’ll look at Jason’s situation.

Subject No. 1 – Sharon:

Shortly after Sharon files her complaint, the court orders her and Robert to attend a parenting class and participate in court-mandated mediation to try to resolve their child custody issues. Sharon meets with her attorney, Ms. Shark, who now requests additional details about Robert’s behavior. She asks if Robert has had any arrests or driving violations due to drinking, or if Sharon has any witnesses who can testify regarding his alleged alcohol problem. Sharon tells her there have been no legal problems but her sister has seen him drunk, and of course his friends have too, although they would never testify against him. Ms. Shark says that Sharon’s sister is not a very strong witness because she would appear to be biased in favor of Sharon. She recommends that Sharon hire a private investigator to follow Robert and try to get some videos of him in an inebriated condition.

Meanwhile, Robert’s attorney has advised him to straighten up. Robert is very concerned about child custody and he listens. He immediately stops the excessive drinking and tells his friends that the weekly card game is off the table for now.

At the court-ordered custody mediation, Sharon becomes angry and insists that Robert’s behavior with alcohol means that he should have only the bare minimum of visitation, perhaps even only supervised visitation. Robert stays very calm and assures Sharon that he never has and never will act in any manner that would put their children at risk. He tells her that he thinks joint custody would be best for the children. They fail to reach agreement, and soon afterward, find themselves in front of a judge. Robert’s attorney has filed a pendente lite motion requesting temporary residential custody of the children. The motion also asks for temporary child support, alimony, and legal fees from Sharon.

At the hearing, Sharon continues to assert her claims that Robert is not a fit parent, even though she has no evidence of this. The judge notes that Sharon appears to be very angry and that he is concerned about her ability to co-parent effectively. The judge also observes that Robert has been handling more of the child care responsibilities over the past few years, and that Sharon works long hours and spends a lot of time out of town on work-related travel. Although Robert and Sharon have not yet formalized their separate living arrangements or completely divided their finances, Sharon has been spending many nights at her sister’s house and has started depositing her paychecks into a separate account. Robert asserts that Sharon has effectively left the family home. Sharon, however, denies this and says that she is just staying with her sister occasionally.

The judge awards temporary residential custody to Robert, with joint legal custody. Sharon is to have two weekends per month and one additional night per week with the children. The judge then urges them to try to resolve their disputes regarding living arrangements and separation of finances on their own and defers any orders on child support and alimony until a later hearing date. In the meantime, he orders them to pay the home mortgage, the utility bills, the children’s expenses, and all of their legal bills to date out of their joint savings account. He also recommends that the case be scheduled for an Early Settlement Conference.

The Case Management Conference in Robert and Sharon’s case is held on the same day as the temporary custody hearing. Because they still have a contested custody matter, they receive a trial date less than 6 months in the future. The case is also scheduled for an Early Settlement Conference, to be held before any further court hearings.

Sharon is devastated by the results in the case so far. She has received a hefty bill for representation from Ms. Shark. Since Robert has been earning so little, she is essentially paying for his attorney as well as her own. In exchange, she has received what she believes to be the worst possible outcome regarding temporary custody. After the hearing she tells Ms. Shark that she is considering hiring someone else. Ms. Shark tells Sharon that this is just how things go sometimes and that hiring a new attorney would be more expensive since that attorney would have to start over in learning about the case. She states that Sharon should think about hiring a child custody evaluator. She also urges her to think about trying to meet Robert halfway at this point. She suspects that he would still be happy with joint custody, and that this would be a good time to try to settle the issue and avoid the possibly very high expense of an evaluator.

Sharon does not listen. Her anger and sense of injury has multiplied and she can only think one way: She must succeed in her claim for primary custody at all costs.

Sharon has again made several errors. She insisted on trying to paint Robert as a “bad guy” without any real evidence. She lost her composure in court and left the judge with a poor impression. She also is not listening to the advice of her attorney, who, even as a very aggressive fighter, can see that Sharon needs to begin to think seriously about compromise. Sharon is allowing her emotions to control her decisions rather than thinking logically. This is a blueprint for disastrous results.

What happens next? Can Sharon change course at this point in the divorce process? Stay tuned for our next installment, coming soon!