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Never-married father wants to go for primary or joint custody across long distance, faces questionable (but not horrible) custodial mother

Your Question:
This is my husband's situation. My husband has a child with another woman from a previous relationship (never married). Up until recently, he has not been required by law to send any kind of support because he was a full time college student. The only thing he is required to do by law is have health insurance for her, which he has always had. My stepdaughter and her mother's relationship is becoming progressively worse as my SD gets older. Recently my mother in law was on the phone with SD's mother and heard mom say to SD that she wanted to kill her (I don't think she really meant it), and then told her to get out of her house. My stepdaughter is only 10 years old. She then asked my mother in law to come and get my SD, they immediately went and got a power of attorney and said yes. When they got back, SD's mother said that she had changed her mind. SD's mother's friend talked her into keeping my SD because we are about to start making hefty child support payments.

My husband would like to get full or legal joint custody. I have begun researching what this would involve, and it all seems quite daunting. From what I've been reading on the internet and on your website, I am going to suggest mediation to my husband. Could you please give me some suggestions for me to share with my husband on how to get started?

My husband regulary visits his daughter. Since I've been with him we have had her during the summer, Christmas, and sometimes on spring break. He has legally upheld his end of child support (the health insurance) while he was in college, and when he graduated, he began to send what he could, even though LEGALLY he didn't have to send anything (he did of course because he loves his daughter and wants to take care of her). This past year (2005) he began sending SD's mother payments twice a month which seemed to be fine for her. Sometimes she would ask for more money.From 2004-2005 my SD lived with us and went to school. At the beginning of 2005 she went back with her mother in Missouri because we were moving without a job. We now live in Georgia and my husband works for a university here. We are planning on staying a long time.

My husband does not want nor is he trying to "take" my SD away from her mother, they can see each other whenever they'd like. I am sure my husband would even be willing to drive SD out to Missouri so SD's mom wouldn't have to travel with her other children. He is also not trying to "get out" of child support payments.

My Stepdaughter's mother has expressed on several occassions that she "can't handle SD", or wants her to be with us...Just the other day she asked my mother in law to come and get SD!; but for whatever reason (I assume it's because of the money we send her, and now, the court ordered child support)she always changes her mind! My husband is now fed up. We are looking into attorneys, I've been looking into mediation and will tell him about it.

Do you think that we have any chance of getting joint or full custody of SD? Her grades improved greatly when she was with us (she was honor roll), and her attitude was much better. She is willing to let SD stay with my husband's parents but not us? This woman does have a history of being arrested, getting into fights, and domestic drama, is this something that could help our case? Is SD (10 yrs) old enough to have an opinion considered by a judge or in mediation, about where she wants to be?

I was going to suggest that my husband hire a private investigator to see whats really going on. I know that at one point SD's mother was a stripper, and SD told her whole class about it. I also know that she has a lot of domestic problems involving men. The thing is, I don't want this to become a big deal, though thats probably inevitable. I want them to mediate and come up with a solution, preferably one that involves SD being with us most of time. Please give me some information to tell my husband. Also, to let you know in case it's important, I am not involved in this, I don't speak with SD's mother or anything like that, my husband handles it all as he should.I just want to know if there is hope for us? I apologize because I know I was long winded and probably redundant. Thank you so much for your help, I look forward to hearing from you!

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My Answer:

Okay, you're in one of those situations where if you build your case thoroughly and with strong evidence, I think you'd have a shot at getting majority custodial timeshare.

A big barrier is the distance, of course, which ensures that there won't be a 50/50 outcome. The daughter has to live in one place during the school year, which mainly leaves school breaks for the other parent.

In building the case, your husband really needs to understand what is relevant to child custody and how to document it with credible evidence. If he tries to hammer minor things, rather than building a case on a couple of major issues, the judge won't pay as much attention.

To learn what's important, the best resource (I say it time and time again) is the book "Win Your Child Custody War" by Hardwick, which I describe on my What You Must Have page. There is no better book available for understanding the dynamics of family law, building strategies, and grasping what is most relevant in child custody.

The biggest challenge you face is the status quo. Daughter has been living mostly with mother for a year. You're going to have to convince a judge that the status quo is so bad that disrupting the child's life is essential for her welfare. You WON'T go into court with a level playing field to determine the better home. The first challenge is to show some significant shortcomings of her current situation.

A private investigator would be helpful before you start court proceedings, sure. You want to find out her criminal history as step one. A PI can do that for you. You also want to document her lifestyle. If she drinks and drives frequently, that's extremely relevant. If she works every night, that's extremely relevant. If she's a stripper (legal under the law), that's not necessarily relevant (unless she's away from home and can't take care of the child). If she's got a parade of men sleeping over while daughter is in the home, that's pretty relevant.

I think the better way to convey daughter's wishes is to have her speak privately with a child psychologist over the course of a number of sessions. Then that psychologist can provide an expert opinion at a custody hearing.

Unless the mother initiates it, I wouldn't suggest approaching her for mediation until your case is put together. When your case is ready, you can request the mother to go to mediation to resolve some issues. If she refuses or delays, then file. If she attends but there's no resolution, then file. That way, within a few weeks of initiating mediation, you'll either have resolution or you can file for a custody change. You don't want to put the mother on alert (via the mediation) and then spend a few months trying to build your case after she's on alert.

Finally, it'd be worth it to find out what constitutes abandonment in the child's state of residence. That way, if the mother ever drops off the child at your husband's folks and says she can't handle the child, your husband's parents may be able to immediately take action (or cue your husband to come get child).

Good luck.


This website gives common sense advice that is not intended to act as legal guidance nor psychological guidance. The author is neither an attorney nor licensed psychologist. For specific legal guidance or specific psychological guidance, consult with a licensed professional.

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