Child Custody Trials in California: Go In Prepared

A trial is like an extended, more formal version of a hearing. Both parties have the opportunity to explore all of their evidence and question witnesses in front of the judge so he or she can issue a ruling.

Custody X Change is software that creates parenting plans and custody schedules you can present in a trial.

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Preparing for trial

Because your trial will end with a final custody order from the court, preparation is crucial.

If you are working with an attorney, he or she will guide you through the process of gathering evidence. Your job is to provide everything your attorney asks for and be completely honest so he or she can prepare for arguments the other party may be compiling.

If you are representing yourself, be sure only to use evidence permitted under the California Evidence Code. Remember that witnesses can generally not discuss anything they did not personally witness; in other words, no hearsay is allowed.

Evidence comes in two forms: exhibits and witness testimony.

Exhibits are things you'll present to the judge: documents, charts, screenshots, photos, audio recordings and more. Use anything that proves your fitness as a parent, from videos of you with your children to a calendar showing the times you normally care for them.

Make sure the judge knows what you believe is best for your children by bringing a proposed parenting plan and schedule to trial. Organized, detailed documents that demonstrate your preferences ― like customizable Custody X Change plans and schedules ― can influence a ruling. As with all documents, bring a copy for the court, one for the other parent, and one for yourself.

Witnesses can be anyone with knowledge relevant to the case. Parents almost always testify as witnesses, but their children usually do not.

Two types of witnesses exist. Expert witnesses are appointed by the court or hired by the parties. They give professional opinions about the case. Examples of expert witnesses are child custody evaluators and forensic psychologists.

Lay witnesses do not offer expert opinions. In fact, they usually don't give opinions at all, but testify about their personal knowledge of the situation. They may include family members, friends, teachers, religious leaders, etc.

Before trial, parties must share a list of their planned witnesses and exhibits with each other and the court.

Also in the lead-up to trial, parties seek to learn more about the other side's preparations through a process called discovery. In discovery, each party can depose (a legal term for interview) the other's witnesses and require the other parent to share personal documents relevant to the case, like emails or financial statements.

Scheduling and timing

Trials often take place months after the last hearing in a case, since court calendars fill up and parties need time to gather evidence. More complicated cases usually have longer waits.

To schedule a trial, your judge will ask each party for a trial time estimate. Trials expected to be short (a few hours) can often be done in one sitting. Longer ones may be broken up into sessions spread out over days (not always consecutive) or weeks.

Don't be surprised if your trial gets delayed, due either to the judge's schedule or requests for more time from either parent.

Procedures

Trials take place in a courtroom in front of a judge. Custody trials don't have juries; instead, the judge has sole authority to issue a ruling, in what is called a "bench trial." The parents and their attorneys sit before the judge, and the gallery ― family, friends, and anyone from the public (but not witnesses, until after they've testified) ― sits behind them.

Custody trials are open to the public, but the court can make them private in extraordinary circumstances.

At the start of a trial, the parent who made the request for custody orders (the "petitioner") has the option of giving ― or having their attorney give ― an opening statement to introduce how they see the case. The other parent (the "respondent") has the opportunity next. However, in custody trials, most people skip opening statements because their judge already knows the case well.

The petitioner also has the first chance to call witnesses and present evidence. He or she can bring up as many witnesses as necessary, provided they were on the witness list filed with the court and the other parent.

Next, the respondent calls his or her witnesses and presents evidence.

Witnesses swear to tell the truth before answering questions from both sides, and sometimes from the judge. Occasionally, they testify by phone or video if they are out of the state or in jail.

The process of questioning witnesses and presenting exhibits can take hours or weeks, depending on the amount of evidence available and necessary.

When both parties have presented their cases, they give closing arguments to summarize their main points.

Usually, the judge announces his or her ruling immediately following closing arguments, but sometimes the judge takes a few minutes, days or even weeks before ruling.

When the judge does announce a decision, he or she will do it point by point. Afterward, one of the attorneys or a court clerk will write it in the form of a court order for the judge to sign.

If you're representing yourself and the judge asks you to write the order, see your family law facilitator or the California Courts site for help. To simplify the process, you can use Custody X Change documents in place of any court form that says "approved for optional use" in the lower left corner.

Once the final order is signed, it replaces any temporary orders in the case. Your options for changing an order include applying for a modification, appealing to a higher court, or fighting the ruling through other motions.

Tips
  • Observe other trials ahead of time, especially ones with your judge.
  • Invite anyone to sit in the gallery who will give you confidence; trials are public, but the audience must remain silent.
  • Do not bring your children, unless they are testifying.
  • Dress like you're going to a job interview.
  • Arrive early so you can find your courtroom, and keep your calendar open for the day.
  • Don't talk about the case when you're in or near the courthouse. You never know who might overhear.
  • Don’t be too friendly with witnesses who are supposed to appear unbiased.
  • Show respect to everyone. Never interrupt, and refer to the judge as "Your Honor."
  • Be honest when you are testifying; you are under oath.
  • Take your time answering questions, but don't ramble. Give your answer thought, begin with "yes" or "no," and then follow up with facts.
  • Ask for clarification if you don't understand a question, and admit when you don't know an answer.
  • Remain respectful even if you are upset by the judge's decision. You may end up in court again and don't want behavior in the heat of the moment to affect you later.
Staying organized

Going to trial over custody and visitation requires serious organization.

You'll need to present evidence, which could range from a log of interactions with the other parent to a calendar showing when you care for your child. You should also present a proposed parenting plan and schedule to the court.

The Custody X Change app lets you create and manage all of these elements in one place.

With a digital journal, personalized custody calendars, a parenting plan template and more, Custody X Change makes sure you’re prepared not only for trial, but for every step of your case.

Take advantage of our technology to get what’s best for your children.

Custody X Change is software that creates parenting plans and custody schedules you can present in a trial.

Make My California Plan Now

Custody X Change is software that creates parenting plans and custody schedules you can present in a trial.

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Custody X Change is software that creates parenting plans and custody schedules you can present in a trial.

Make My California Plan Now

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