The challenge in child custody cases is to get important information to the judge while following all court rules. There’s an art to eliciting great expert testimony, and you have to know the right questions to ask. The judge’s job is to establish what sort of custody arrangement is in the best interests of your child, and the answers you get to your questions should directly relate to this issue. Most states have lists of “best interests” factors that judges are supposed to consider when making custody decisions, so take the time to learn what they are in your area before you head into court.
If you absolutely can't hire an attorney, narrow your questions to information that will show the judge what's in the best interests of your child.
Questioning Your Child’s Other Parent
One important best-interests factor is almost universal from state to state. The court doesn’t want to disrupt your child’s life or change his lifestyle any more than is absolutely necessary simply because you and his other parent don't want to live together any longer. Some questions you might ask your ex could focus on who has historically been your child’s primary caregiver. Judges often lean toward continuing that status quo.
- Who prepares your child’s meals?
- Who takes your child to school or to the bus stop?
- Who oversees homework and school projects?
- Who volunteers to chaperone school events?
- Who does your child normally eat dinner with?
Others questions might try to establish how much time your ex has available to care for your child.
- What time do you leave for work in the morning, and what time do your children go to school?
- Do you work any overtime? When and how often?
- Do you work weekends?
- Who will care for the children when you’re at work if they’re not in school?
- Can you leave work if your child is sick or otherwise needs you?
Some questions can establish how involved your ex is with your child’s daily routine.
- What size clothing does your child currently wear?
- What are the names of your child’s best friends?
- What is his favorite TV show?
- What’s his favorite subject in school?
- What does he want to be when he grows up?
- What’s his favorite thing to do on weekends?
Questioning Other Family Members
Family members aren't always the best witnesses. You can use them to try to dispute some or all of the answers your ex has given, but his family is almost certainly going to agree with everything he's said, whether it’s true or not. They’re going to tell you and the court that he’s a perfect parent. Is that really something you want to enforce to the judge by having it repeated again and again?
If you do decide to question your ex’s family members, remain polite. Don’t let yourself lose your temper, even when you know that his mother or brother is blatantly lying.
Neighbors and Friends as Witnesses
Neighbors and friends are one step up from family members. You can use these witnesses to try to establish how hands-on your ex is with your child’s life. Consider asking and establishing how often these people see your child with you, and how often she’s with his other parent. But avoid using them as character witnesses. Again, they might be somewhat biased, and the judge probably expects this.
Questioning Teachers, Physicians, Coaches and Other Adults
These people can often provide some useful information to the court, and they’re likely to be more impartial than friends, family members and neighbors – something judges tend to appreciate. You might ask your child’s doctor which parent usually accompanies him to visits, and establish whether your child has any special needs that one parent is better able to meet than the other. Which parent typically calls in for assistance when there’s a health problem?
Ask teachers which parent typically attends conferences and other school activities. Who typically signs off on homework assignments and other notices? Does your child behave any differently when he’s been with one parent or the other? Are there any changes in his work habits during these times?
You might want to consider including other adults who regularly interact with your child and family as well, such as scout leaders, sports coaches, church leaders or child care providers.
Consider Enlisting the Help of an Attorney
Questioning witnesses in open court is not something the average parent excels at, and you might not want to do it on your own. These sample questions are guidelines, nothing more, and every witness and situation is different. An approach that works with one witness might be disastrous with another.
Lawyers spend years in school and at practice refining the art of questioning witnesses. Consider asking for help if you don’t have the same level of experience, particularly if your ex is using a lawyer. You might want to look into legal aid or pro bono services if your budget isn’t such that you can afford an attorney. You can almost always get free or discounted legal help if your income is limited.
If You Proceed on Your Own
Educate yourself on court rules and procedures before you attempt to represent yourself in custody court. Your witnesses should have immediate, firsthand knowledge of anything they testify to, or the judge won’t allow them to answer. For example, they can’t say, “Sally Smith told me that…”
You can’t lead witnesses with your questions, either, such as by stating “Isn’t it true that…” You can’t fish for the response you’re looking for. You should always begin each question with a distinct qualifier, such as who, what, where, when or how.
And never ask questions that you don’t already know the answer to. You’ve heard it said in courtroom TV dramas a hundred times, and it’s true. If you’re not working with a lawyer for some reason, make sure you’ve adequately interviewed your witnesses before they take the witness stand so you’re absolutely sure what they're going to say.