DeKalb Judges Explain Mistakes to Avoid in Divorce and Custody Litigation

During a recent meeting of the Family Law Section of the DeKalb Bar Association, Georgia Lord heard presentations by three Judges of the Superior Court of DeKalb County: Judges Gregory Adams, Mark Scott, and Clarence Seeliger. Georgia explains that she found the speeches valuable.  She notes that, “At this type of program, DeKalb Judges explain mistakes to avoid in divorce and custody litigation.” Judge Seeliger noted that many divorce or custody litigants want to focus on airing their hurts or grievances rather than on the questions that will have the greatest impact on his decision. For example, in contested child custody cases he wants to hear about each party’s parenting abilities, as well as their willingness to cooperate with their ex in co-parenting.  Instead, some parties in contested custody cases spend a lot of time testifying about the other party’s adultery and relatively little time addressing parenting skills and experience. Judge Seeliger said that it turns him off to hear one parent disparage the other in court because the harsh words will injure their ability to work together to raise their children in the future.

One of the pieces of advice Judge Adams offered was that litigants should listen very carefully to each of the questions they are being asked on cross-examination and try their best to answer them.  He says that many litigants respond to cross-examination questions by basically repeating a prepared statement, rather than by actually answering the questions.  He finds this very frustrating. He noted that one change he has seen during his ten years on the DeKalb Superior bench is that now more fathers are requesting significant shares of the parenting time.

Judge Scott noted that he often reminds litigants that although the other party may have done something that they find offensive, they need to consider the possibility that the Judge hearing the case may not be as offended as they are.  Some things that offend them may not offend the Judge at all, because the Judge’s values and life experiences may well be different from theirs. He encourages parties to consider resolving their case by compromise, saying, “The results you are hoping for may not be the ones you get from me.”

All of the Judges stated that they found the services of a “Guardian ad litem” very valuable in custody disputes.  Such Guardians are appointed by the court.  They conduct an investigation and make recommendations regarding the type of custody arrangement that would be in the best interest of the child or children involved.  The Judges stated that when a Guardian has been appointed, the Guardian’s report gives the Judge access to more information than they would otherwise have.

How to Help Your Children through Your Divorce

Divorce is often painful for the people involved but it can be especially tough for children. The way in which you talk to your children about the divorce can have a profound impact on them, as can the way in which you behave.  This is a time when it is important to model grace under fire: it is how to help your children through your divorce.

mother cooking with childIt is important to tell your children you are divorcing well before they hear about it from someone else.  Once the plans have been finalized and you know for sure you are going through with the divorce, it is time to sit down with the kids. Yes, “the Talk” is difficult, but it has to be done, and it is important that you do it the right way.  If at all possible, both parents should be there for the talk.

Try to be calm rather than emotional.  Don’t let them see that you are mad, scared or hurt.  Do not ask them to “decide” what you should do; the responsibility of deciding whether to end a marriage rests with the spouses, and should not be piled onto the shoulders of their children.  Reassure your children that:

  1. The split is NOT in any way their fault;
  2. Even though you and your spouse’s feelings for each other have changed, you both will ALWAYS love your kids;
  3. Even though you and your spouse will not be living together any more, you both will still act as a unit to raise the kids; and,
  4. Things will be okay.

You will need to repeat these assurances to your children as time goes by.

Both during your initial talk with your children, and later as the divorce process grinds along, be careful not to fall into any of these tempting traps:

  • Oversharing – Give the children information that is relevant to them, like where they will be when and who will take them to soccer practice. Don’t give them the nitty gritty about wrongdoing or infidelities: complaining to your children about their other parent will not only hurt them and will also damage your case with the Judge.   Don’t complain about or argue with your spouse to others where your children may be able to hear you.  Do not vent your emotions with your children.
  • Blaming – When the children are unhappy about a particular situation, avoid using your spouse as a scapegoat. Instead of saying, “I want to be with you for Christmas, too, but your father insisted you be with him,” say, “The judge decided you should spend this Christmas with your father and I know he is excited about sharing it with you.”
  • Manipulating – Don’t try to use the children as a weapon against your spouse. Most of the time it won’t work and it will actually end up damaging your relationship with the kids instead.
  • Disrupting – Most children thrive on routine and boundaries so their lives should be disrupted as little as possible.
  • Ignoring – Never get so tied up with your own pain that you forget your kids are hurting too. Give them the love and reassurance they will need to get through the divorce with a healthy outlook.