For many parents, child custody is an important and emotionally charged issue. Before you meet with a child custody lawyer, you should prepare for your appointment. In order to understand your claim, the lawyer will need accurate and detailed information. While every lawyer has his or her own interview process, this is a list of common questions.

Has Paternity Been Established?

Typically, married parents have equal custody of their children. However, different rules may apply if parents are unmarried. In many states, an unmarried mother receives primary custody of the child. An unmarried father typically must establish paternity and request custody or parenting time. Paternity may be established in a variety of ways, including DNA testing and acknowledgement on a child’s birth certificate.

Is There an Existing Custody Order or Parenting Plan?

Most states have specific rules about changing a child custody order. Typically, you must show a significant change in circumstances. A change in circumstances may include evidence that:

  • A child’s safety and welfare is now seriously at risk,
  • A parent has willfully violated the current parenting plan,
  • An older child is reasonably requesting a modification, or
  • A parent’s relocation makes the current parenting plan impossible or impractical.

Some states also impose waiting periods before the court will change a custody order. If you have an existing custody order or parenting plan, the lawyer will need to review the document. And, if there is evidence that the current order is no longer appropriate, bring this evidence with you.

How Is Your Relationship Like With Your Child’s Other Parent?

If your separation is amicable, you may not need to file a child custody action against your former spouse or partner. Many custody disputes can be resolved without litigation. Alternative dispute resolution (ADR), including mediation, can be helpful when parents cannot immediately agree on a parenting plan. During mediation, a neutral third party helps parents discuss and negotiate custody—with the goal of completing a voluntary parenting plan. In some states, family mediation may be mandatory.

However, negotiation and mediation are not always possible in a custody dispute. For example, a history of significant spousal or domestic abuse may make ADR impractical and unproductive. In order to tailor your legal strategy, the lawyer will need to understand how willing you are to collaborate and cooperate with your child’s other parent.

What Is in the Child’s Best Interests?

When parents cannot agree on custody, the courts must determine what arrangement is in the child’s best interests. This assessment typically involves a series of factors, including:

  • The child’s wishes (if age appropriate),
  • The physical and mental health of both the child and parents,
  • The parents’ willingness and ability to adequately parent,
  • The parents’ moral character,
  • The willingness of each parent to cooperate and respect the other’s parental relationship,
  • The child’s emotional, developmental, and material needs,
  • The stability of each parents’ home environment,
  • The child’s connection to his or her home, school, and community,
  • The importance of other familial relationships, and
  • Any evidence of domestic abuse.

The lawyer will need a detailed and accurate understanding of these (and other) factors. 

What Should I Bring to a Meeting with a Child Custody Lawyer?

Again, it is important to bring any evidence you have to your appointment. This information will help the lawyer evaluate your claim and provide accurate advice. The lawyer may want to see:

  • The child’s birth certificate,
  • Any existing custody orders or parenting plans,
  • Information about the child’s safety and welfare,
  • Information about the other parent’s ability and willingness to parent, and
  • Any relevant communications between you and the other parent.

This information will help the lawyer evaluate and understand your child custody dispute.

However, most child custody lawyers will not want to meet with your child at the first appointment. You will be discussing a lot of sensitive information about yourself and the child’s other parent. Typically, it is inappropriate to involve your child in these discussions. If you want or need to bring your child with you, please discuss this with the lawyer in advance.

Where Can I Find the Right Lawyer?

Hiring a lawyer is an important decision. For many parents, child custody claims are too complicated to handle alone. A local child custody lawyer can help you understand and protect your parental rights.