Family law is very fact-intensive. Family law is also one of the most emotional areas of the law due to one simple fact: we are deciding which parent gets to see their kids. This combination creates clients/parents that are emotionally charged and taxed to their limit. So much of the child custody analysis involves details of the interaction between parents and children and the interaction between co-parents. Client organization is the key to a successful lawsuit. A simple family law notebook will make the difference between presenting a good case in court or presenting a weak case in court. In this article I will discuss a family law notebook and why advocate that every co-parent should use them.
What is in a family law notebook?
It starts with a 3-inch binder and a paper punch. The first thing that is put into the binder is your orders or judgments. The court speaks through written orders. Nothing else said in court or mediation has any authority. At the conclusion of a divorce, the court will sign a Judgment of Divorce. Sometimes there will be a separate property settlement that is not within the public record. The client is responsible for keeping a property settlement. Most divorce judgments have both a property settlement and child custody and support. As time passes, both custody and support are changed. The Michigan Friend of the Court will review child support calculations/obligations every three years. This FOC review will produce a new order. This order should also be in the family law notebook. Every judgment/order should be in the notebook as time passes. Child custody and child support are in place until the child is 18 years old, in other words, family law cases last a very long time. A client should have every order within the family law notebook, in chronological order, easily accessible when it comes time to involve a lawyer.
The second portion of the notebook should be plain old-school paper. This is the section of the notebook that will win cases in court. In this section, the client enters journal entries by date. What should the client talk about? The client should write down what their gut tells them isn’t right. “My child said what is going on over at the co-parent’s house.” “Today my co-parent said this to me at the child exchange.” “Co-parent told me today they couldn’t take the kid this weekend because they were leaving town.” “My ex really pissed me off today because ????” “My co-parent said they wouldn’t make child support this month because they lost their job.” The journal entry doesn’t have to be lengthy, or daily, but it does have to record tense moments between the co-parent and client or co-parent and child. Over time, patterns will develop which may be very useful in court. For example, at child exchanges, the co-parent may berate the client in front of the child. Similarly, a pattern of skipping visitation may develop for Wednesday nights, the night the ex likes to attend a bowling league. Finally, a pattern might emerge where the ex doesn’t attend any parent-teacher conferences at the child’s school. As you can see, this information is valuable for a custody/support case in court. If the co-parent gets nasty with emails or text messages, it would be wise to print out these text messages and put the paper copy in the journal. When a person loses or breaks a cell phone, do the text messages die along with the phone?
The third portion of the family law notebook is a simple calendar. The client should note on the calendar relevant events related to the child/co-parent. Some of my clients keep a calendar with visitation schedules and notes.
What is the value of the family law notebook?
A good family law notebook saves the client money, lot’s of it. Family law cases look back in time, sometimes years. Gathering evidence for a family law case takes a lot of effort. The sooner the client can provide an accurate picture of the case, the sooner the lawyer may develop a winning strategy for their case. For example, recently a client called me and said the co-parent isn’t exercising their parenting time and I want more child custody. “How much parenting time is the co-parent skipping?” I asked. “A lot,” said the client. “How much is a lot?” I asked. “I don’t know, I could probably figure it out,” said the client. “I need to know exactly how much parenting time your co-parent has skipped,” I said. Now contrast the above with a client that keeps a family law notebook. “How much parenting time is the co-parent skipping?” I asked. “Hang on, I will count the days on my calendar, he has 80 overnights per year and has missed 35 nights last year.” This organized client just provided an accurate picture of the issues. Furthermore, the family law notebook is a record that may be entered into evidence at court. There is no guesswork or hours of preparation by the lawyer to present the case in court.
The family law notebook also provides credibility for a client’s case. Details always bolster witness credibility in court. Having a record to draw details and conclusions from will beat half-ass testimony in court every time. Remember, in every family law case are two sides trying to convince a judge to side with them.
Finally, a well-maintained family law notebook will provide peace of mind for the client. Family law is convoluted and confusing. This confusion is amplified by a bad co-parent. Being ready for a court battle is much better than stressing about a court battle. The hallmark of a good attorney-client relationship is good communication. A family law notebook allows the client to concisely communicate with their attorney.
Knowing your rights and how the family law courts work is very important. Spend some time learning the law and print out resources that will help you, include it in your family law notebook. For example, in Michigan, the Friend of the Court publishes manuals related to all things family law. These manuals or bench books are easily found through google. The best interests of the child factors are codified in a statute, MCL 722.23. Reading this statute and researching this statute would put any none lawyer way ahead of the game.
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