Child Custody Checklist

Updated by , Attorney

Hire a Child Custody Expert

There are many items to think about and consider as you prepare for a custody dispute. But the absolute first step is to hire the right lawyer, with the right experience, knowledge and training - specifically in custody matters.

There are lots of divorce attorneys out there, but they don't all have the same experience in custody issues. Some divorce attorneys actually avoid custody altogether. Hiring the right custody lawyer is probably the most important action you can take. Without the right lawyer, nothing seems to work out as well - no matter how much work you put into your case.

You may want to get recommendations from your family attorney, friends, and/or local and state bar associations. And you may have to meet with a few different attorneys to find the one that's the best fit for you and the custody issues in your case. For example, if your case involves an international custody dispute and the Hague Convention, you should hire an attorney with experience in those matters.

Create a Child Custody Checklist

Once you have your lawyer on board, you should prepare a list to help you organize the rest of the items you need to consider. Your list should be addressed to your attorney and labeled "attorney-client privileged communication," so that it's protected from "discovery," meaning the other side won't be able to ask you for a copy of it.

Your list should cover the following items:

  1. Make a list of the other person's weaknesses, particularly in the realm of parenting. The other person is usually your spouse or former spouse, but may be grandparents, foster parents, siblings, or even the State.
  2. Make a list of the other person's strengths. This is really important. It's too easy to concentrate on the other person's weaknesses and what they do wrong -- here we want you to list what they do right.
  3. Make a list of your own strengths.
  4. Make a list of your weaknesses. Be brutally honest. Only you and your lawyer will see this list.
  5. List the strengths in your present position from the view of the judge, including your job, finances, any help from your parents.
  6. List the strengths of the other person in his or her present position.
  7. Decide if you should be the first to initiate the custody suit or motion.
  8. Write out a draft "custody plan" (sometimes also called a "parenting plan"). List everything that you want as if you will be able to get everything that you want -- you won't get everything, but making this list is a good start.
  9. Make a list of the negotiable points in your draft custody plan (it's fine to give this to your attorney, but you shouldn't let the other side know what your negotiable points are).
  10. Make a list of your bargaining chips.
  11. Decide if you should start negotiating with your ex-spouse or ex-partner to work out a temporary custody plan and then possibly settle the case.
  12. If you can't work out a plan with your child's other parent, prepare for court.
  13. Find out what criteria your local family court looks at when awarding custody.
  14. Find out if your judge has specific prejudices (blond hair, women or men, successful women, athletic-looking men, etc.).
  15. Find out if the other person is using alienating strategies.
  16. If the other person is using alienating strategies, put into effect a plan to counteract these strategies.
  17. Document any instances of alienating strategies (e.g., keep a calendar or journal).
  18. Decide if the other person may make false allegations in court. What would they be?
  19. Decide how to refute any false allegations.
  20. Make a list of witnesses that you have to refute potential allegations.
  21. Write down, for each witness, how they should dress and act in court.
  22. Decide how you should act in court.
  23. Choose the clothes you will wear in court.
  24. Decide if this is the right time to start dating.
  25. Decide if this is the right time to move in with your new significant other.
  26. Make a list of the marital assets.
  27. Include in the list when and how each asset came into the marriage.
  28. Calculate how much insurance is in force that would go to you and your child.
  29. Calculate how much insurance you and your child actually need.
  30. Decide who will pay for your child's medical coverage.
  31. Write down the education plans for your child and yourself.
  32. Make a list of your future potential earnings.
  33. Think about what could happen to increase or decrease your future earnings potential.
  34. Make a list of the other person's estimated future income.
  35. Write down any special earnings potential of the other person.
  36. Decide if your child is being bribed.
  37. If yes, decide on a course of action to counteract these bribes.
  38. Make a list, by subject, of the important things you have not told your lawyer. You don't want any surprises in court. List arrests, bankruptcy, affairs, fights -- everything!
  39. Consider if there is a sickness or disability involved.
  40. Make a list of any of the ways that you can help control legal costs.
  41. Decide what to do if the other person wants to relocate.
  42. Decide if you may want to relocate, now or later.
  43. Decide if you need a custody evaluation to help your case. Ask your lawyer whether a custody evaluation might be helpful.
  44. Hire the right custody evaluator. Get recommendations from your lawyer, friends, etc.
  45. Decide if the other person is trying to "get your goat."
  46. Consider how it would help the other person if you did get angry.


Excerpted from, the Experts' 2004 Complete Custody Help Kit, by Dr. Barry Bricklin and Dr. Gail Elliot.

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