As I reflect on my first year of practicing family law (including divorce and child custody in Dallas, Texas), I realize that there were many moments where I felt the weight of the responsibility of my new title very heavily on my shoulders. Because I was a paralegal for so many years before law school, part of my brain believed that my transition to lawyer would be less jolting. In some ways, I had a few advantages, but only when it came to the procedural tasks that many lawyers pick up rather quickly anyway.
The real difference for me—and the thing that has kept me up many nights—is that now, I am in the driver’s seat. I am the one making the decisions, guiding the strategy, and calling the shots. It’s pretty sobering out here as I’m advocating for my clients’ children, protecting their retirement accounts, and often, helping to restore their mental health and emotional well being. I take my responsibility very seriously. Because I also handle numerous cases with clients who identify as LGBTQ+, I am acutely aware of the statutory challenges they may face. I am also cognizant that the climate in certain Texas counties toward LGBTQ+ parties may be less-than-favorable. To date, I’ve successfully represented clients who identify as transgender, gay, lesbian, bisexual, nonbinary, and polyamorous, in several less-than LGBTQ+ friendly Texas counties.
Below is my Top 5 List of helpful tips for those who identify as LGBTQ+ who may be contemplating custody litigation. Your rights may teeter precariously on the edge of a legislative loophole, so please get the advice of an experienced LGBTQ+ family law attorney as soon as an issue arises.
Top 5 Tips for LGBTQ+ Custody Litigation
This point cannot be emphasized enough. Below is a list of the types of things you should document, as applicable. Keep a calendar or a journal—whatever is handy or convenient—at all times.
- Your child’s daily schedule and/or routine;
- Dates and times when your child is in your possession (be detailed, specific, and include all dates and times—yes, I said ALL);
- Places and/or documents where you are listed or named as a parent, conservator, or emergency contact for your child (birth announcements, birthday party invitations, church records, school records, medical records, etc.);
- Text messages and/or e-mails between you and the other conservator discussing the child or topics related to the child;
- Text messages and/or e-mails between you and the child’s other caretakers, such as teachers, doctors, or other family members;
- A detailed list of the parenting roles that you fulfill for the child (room parent at school, carpool to and from school or to extracurricular activities, doctor appointments, bath or bedtime routine, etc.)
- A list of your child’s favorite things such as colors, books, foods, activities, songs, etc.;
- Several recent photos of you and your child as well as photos showing your historical interactions with your child (birth photos, birthday parties, holidays, etc.); and
- Copies of your child’s legal documents (birth certificate, Social Security card, passport).
Prioritize your self-care.
Take care of your mental health. Find a good counselor and see your counselor regularly. Yes, even if you’re not depressed, and yes, even if you don’t think you need one. Your attorney cannot and should not fulfill this role, and your counselor will provide you with a healthy outlet for your fears, frustrations, and anxiety as you progress through custody litigation. This person could also be a potential witness to your mental fitness if needed.
Take care of your physical health. Go to the doctor and get a checkup, take your vitamins, do some yoga or other exercises both to stay healthy and for mental clarity. If you’re not taking care of yourself, you are not in a position to take care of others. Period. Put yourself high on your list of priorities and proceed accordingly
Don’t be the parent who doesn’t know your child’s teachers’ names, their dentist, or the name of your child’s best friend. Regularly attend your child’s choir or band concerts, cheer at your child’s after school sporting events, have lunch with your child at school, regularly participate in parent/teacher conferences and open houses, and attend your child’s doctor’s visits. Your name on those attendance sheets and doctor records will show your level of involvement as an active parent who is perfectly positioned to take on the full responsibility of caring for your child. If you’re unable or unwilling to immediately take on a more active role in your child’s life, please seriously consider your motivations for pursuing custody litigation. If you are wanting more possession time with your child, get more involved now in all of the ways that you can. Make sure that what you want actually fits with what you are able to take on. If you work long hours, have a talk with your employer about tweaking your schedule sooner rather than later.
Get your ducks in a row.
This tip is sort of a catchall for the items listed above, but do take some time to sit down and carefully scrutinize every aspect of your life. Can you comfortably pay all of your bills? Are you satisfied with your current job? Are you in a stable relationship? During litigation, every aspect of your life will be dissected, evaluated, and investigated. Now is the time to kick any bad habits and generally just to clean up your act. Please be careful with your social media posts, and never, ever post any derogatory remarks about your child’s other parent. Also, keep your weekend binge drinking or other less-than-savory activities out of the public eye, and always practice discretion in accepting unfamiliar friend requests. Last but not least, plan financially for the long haul. Your initial retainer to hire your lawyer may get you to the finish line, but it may not, and depending on how contentious your case becomes, starting a fight you cannot finish could yield devastating results. Your lawyer is your best weapon, so keeping them in the game is imperative.
Know the law.
Go meet with an attorney. Yes, now! If you don’t know the law, you won’t know how to proceed. In many circumstances, there are deadlines that once missed, may preclude you from even filing a lawsuit. Talk to a family law practitioner who has handled cases similar to yours who can guide you through the process and prepare you for all of the potential outcomes. Write down your questions and go to the consultation prepared to get answers to all of them. If you identify as LGBTQ+ and you are a non-biological or non-adoptive parent, please act sooner rather than later.