Hiring a child custody lawyer who is dedicated to fighting for you and for what is in the best interests of your children is imperative. Without effective representation, you could end up wasting a lot of time and money for an agreement or court order that isn’t in your favor.
Part of finding the right legal counselor is learning key details about potential candidates to help you make this important decision.
Here are eight questions to ask as you compare child custody lawyers:
1. How long have you been a child custody lawyer?
This will tell you how much experience an attorney has. Typically, the longer someone has been practicing in this area of law, the more knowledgeable and helpful he or she will likely be. Of course, experience is only one factor.
2. How many cases have you actually tried?
Joel M. Sunshine, partner at divorce and family law firm Sunshine and Feinstein, LLP, stresses the importance of finding out this information:
“Ask them: ‘How many cases have you taken to trial and how many of those resulted in a verdict, one way or the other?’ It’s a great question and nobody asks this,” he explains. “You want to hire someone who has tried 30 or 40 or 50 child custody cases, even if you’re hoping to negotiate a settlement.”
Knowing how often a lawyer has gone to trial speaks to the experience level he or she has at trial, which requires a completely different skill set than negotiating a settlement. It would therefore be advantageous to work with a lawyer who has actually gone to trial numerous times and understands what the process is like. Even if your intention is to settle the case without trial, it is beneficial to you that your spouse understands that if he or she is unreasonable in the settlement negotiations, and you are forced to go to trial, you have an accomplished trial attorney on your side.
“You would be surprised how many attorneys have never tried a case to the end, or how many have only tried a few. If you were hiring a surgeon to perform a major surgery on your child, you would want to know that they had performed that surgery many, many times before, right? If you are hiring a lawyer to fight for you at trial for the best interests of your children, you would want a lawyer who has fought in that arena, with those rules of evidence, many, many times."
3. How would you describe your approach to child custody cases?
You want an aggressive and zealous attorney who will go above and beyond to achieve your goals. Child custody lawyers who aren’t proactive or enthusiastic about their jobs likely won’t prove effective with your case. Your primary goal should be to settle your case, and you would like to retain an attorney who has the personality and technique that will encourage a settlement, all while ensuring that they have the skills and experience to win your trial if a settlement cannot be achieved.
4. Do you regularly keep in touch with clients and provide updates on their cases?
You’re going to want a lawyer who consistently communicates with you throughout the process. This way, you’ll know exactly what the status of the case is, and what will be expected from you as it proceeds, rather than being left in the dark to fend for yourself.
5. What is the difference between legal and residential custody?
It’s important to understand what each possible outcome of the case entails. For instance, if you end up with joint legal custody of your children, you’ll want to know exactly what this means, and your rights. In this particular example, you and the other parent will have to make major decisions—medical, educational, religious and extracurricular—about your children, together.
If you are granted sole legal custody of your children, you have the authority to make these major decisions without having to confer with the other parent.
Listen how the lawyer explains each of these concepts. Does he or she do so in a way that is easy to understand? If not, how can you expect to feel comfortable with what is going on during the complexity of a custody battle?
6. Could you help me change a court custody decision?
If you’ve already gone through the child custody process but are looking for better legal representation to make changes to the decision, or modify custody, you'll need to verify if a particular lawyer can accommodate your requests.
Exceptional child custody lawyers should respond by asking about your previous case. This includes: how much time you currently spend with your children; when the initial decision was reached; whether it was made by the judge, or through an agreement; and why you want to make a change. That last inquiry is especially important, since the court will need to understand your motivations.
“If you want to change the decision, there has to be a change in circumstances,” explains Sunshine.
If the children have been primarily living with their mother, for example, but now the mother is remarried to someone they do not get along with, the other parent may ask for a modification in custody. This change in circumstance could be enough to help the other parent gain sole custody if it’s proved to be in the best interests of the children to do so. Of course, there are other factors involved that the court will consider, such as the environment in the other parent’s home. An expert lawyer will explain all of this to you and evaluate the strength of your argument before giving you a definitive answer.
7. How much money should I be prepared to spend?
Many people do not know how costly a custody case can be. The right lawyer will likely first ask what your budget is before responding.
“I think people are surprised how few true custody battles there are, because if the lawyer is doing their job, they’ll explain how expensive it can be,” explains Sunshine.
Custody battles are expensive. If a lawyer is not telling you that, that might be a red flag.
“That’s not to say that we can’t save our client’s money on the case. We can,” Sunshine adds. However, if money isn’t an issue and you’re willing to set a high budget, you “are better off fighting a case thoroughly. For example, it might benefit you to have a forensic psychiatrist appointed, but that is expensive,” he continues. However, if you are not financially able to do this, it’s probably in your best interest to negotiate a settlement.
8. What do you need me to tell you?
An experienced attorney will try to learn as much as possible about your case. This includes, but is not limited to: how long you have been married; who has been caring for the children since they were born; how many children you have, and their ages; and what you want the end result to be. This way, the lawyer can carefully assess your case.
“A good lawyer is going to strategize your case, starting on day one,” explains Sunshine. “If a lawyer is using the same strategy for every single case, that lawyer is going to lose a lot of cases, and also waste a lot of his client’s money doing unnecessary things.”
Take notice if the lawyer is mapping out a general strategy while you're explaining your situation, as this will give you an indication if he or she really cares about your case and actually looking to help.
Find out about Sunshine and Feinstein, LLP’s expertise in child custody.
Sunshine & Feinstein, LLP, 666 Old Country Road, Suite 605, Garden City, NY 11530. (516) 742-6444. This is Attorney Advertising.