If you are involved in a Custody dispute in North Carolina you need to understand the process. NC has adopted statewide mandatory child custody mediation absent some compelling reason such as one party lives out of state or there is a history of domestic violence. Usually this means you have to attend mediation before you ever see a Judge. If mediation results in an agreement you may never see the Judge if he or she simply signs your agreement to make it a Court Order. If no agreement is reached then the next phase is usually a trial. In Union County this usually means two trials: (1) a Temporary Custody Hearing, and (2) a Permanent Custody Hearing. Mecklenburg County usually bypasses the Temporary hearing unless one party files for a Temporary Parenting Arrangement.
What is a Temporary Custody hearing in Union County, NC?
A Temporary Custody hearing is a one (1) hour hearing at which the Judge will make an initial determination on Child Custody. Often the Permanent Order mirrors the Temporary Order so it is critical to present your best evidence at this initial hearing.
What are the rules in Union County, NC?
It is important to review the Union County local rules, but the main rule is that each side gets 30 minutes each to present their case on the issues of custody. This means you only have 30 minutes to testify yourself, call your own witnesses, cross examine the other party and their witnesses and give a closing argument. Sometimes (but not always) an additional 30 minutes is given to each party if child support is also at issue.
Do I need to file anything before Court?
If you are the Plaintiff then you likely already filed for Custody and/or Child Support. If you are the Defendant, then you should have filed Counterclaims for the same or for visitation if that is all you are seeking. A Financial Affidavit is usually required if Child Support is at issue. Another item that is optional is a personal affidavit.
What is a Personal Affidavit?
A personal affidavit is an optional letter you can write telling the Court about your home life and that of the child/ren. As the Temporary hearings are extremely time limited, this gives you an opportunity to explain in detail the routine of the child/ren, details of your life, and parenting philosophy. Make sure you have multiple people proofread your affidavit as poor English or spelling errors may be worse than no affidavit at all. The main rules for a personal affidavit are as follows:
How do I present my case in only 30 minutes?
One of the main advantages of hiring an attorney is having someone experienced in presenting your case in a rapid fire manner. If you are representing yourself you need to practice what you are going to say in addition to practicing with any witnesses you intend to call at trial.
Do I testify at this hearing?
If you are mom or dad you certainly should plan to testify at your hearing. You are free to tell to the Judge what custody arrangement is in the best interest of the child/ren. Ordinarily your attorney would ask you questions that demonstrate why your proposal is the best plan for custody. If you are representing yourself you should consider creating a bullet point list of topics to take to the witness stand or else you may forget half of what you planned to say. Be aware that any notes you take to the stand can be examined by the other party or their attorney.
What should I say when I testify?
Each case is different, but some items to concentrate on are as follows:
What questions can the other party ask me?
After you testify the other side can ask almost anything, subject to you objecting and the Judge ruling the question is not proper. Expect questions designed to make you angry and upset- don’t fall into that trap. Remain calm, do not argue, but express your opinion.
Who else should I call as a witness?
Assuming you testify yourself for 10 minutes, cross examine the other party for 10 minutes and give a 2 minute closing argument that leaves about 8 minutes to call another witness or maybe two. That other witness is often someone who lives with you such as your parent/s or significant other. Make sure they are willing to come to Court as people hate going to Court. Also make sure you go over the questions you plan to ask them ahead of Court. The last thing you need is your own witness to say something unexpected!
How do I cross examine a witness?
Ask leading questions versus open ended questions. Essentially, ask questions that will yield a "yes" or "no" answer versus a question that will allow the person to talk for five (5) minutes. Never ask a question to which you don't already know the answer. If you do- you will be sorry.
Leading questions (the good kind for cross examination):
Open ended questions (the kind to avoid):
What should I bring to Court?
Bring some exhibits to show the Court such as pictures of the inside and outside of your house to show the Court you keep a clean house. Also bring some pictures of you and your kids on vacation, at the park, zoo, etc. Other items you may bring include report cards, emails or texts from the other party that show how difficult they are to deal with or anything else that supports your position.
What if Child Support is also an issue?
You should have already filed a copy of your financial affidavit well before Court and mailed a copy with the required attachments to the other party. At the hearing you will need to testify as to your average gross (before taxes) monthly income in addition to introducing copies of your latest pay-stubs to prove your income. Finally bring receipts for any daycare expenses and proof of health insurance costs for just the minor child/ren.
What should I say in my Closing Argument?
A closing argument is not evidence and is not an opportunity to testify about things you forget to say earlier. This is your chance to succinctly state why your plan for the child/ren is best and what you want the ruling to be. Consider creating a bullet point list of six (6) things to say ahead of time and sprinkle in four (4) new points based on the evidence that comes out at trial.