1. xanadu
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    xanadu Contributing Member Contributor

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    Child Custody & Master's Conference

    Discussion in 'Research' started by xanadu, Oct 1, 2013.

    Hey all, seems I only ever drop in to ask a question anymore, but I'm in need of some insight. Here's the background:

    I'm quickly approaching the climax of my newest project. In a nutshell, the story surrounds a married couple and their adopted daughter as they go through the early stages of a divorce. The bulk of the story has them at odds with each other, namely over custody arrangements, as the mother (my main) is a successful and busy IT administrator who is often forced to put work before her family and the father is just bouncing back from being laid off and struggling with feelings of emasculation (unable to provide, unable to impregnate his wife--hence the adoption, etc). But both characters feel the other is less than ideal to have primary custody, and both are unwilling to give up as much time as the other asks for. Despite attempts at working things out themselves, they eventually find that the only [apparent] way to settle their dispute is through legal means.

    Now, fortunately or unfortunately, I have absolutely no experience with child custody battles. I've managed to get almost to the end without having to dip my toes in legal waters, but with the climax looming ahead I need something with higher stakes than just mom and dad yelling again. My understanding is that after an initial complaint is filed and the other party is served, there is something called a Master's Conference which comes before any sort of trial. Ultimately, I don't need the conflict to go any further than this first legal step, since the parents will work something out shortly after due to outside circumstances. But I think it would be beneficial to have the climax scene in this legal setting, as it really pumps up the tension and the stakes.

    I've done quite a bit of research, but I've not found anything detailing exactly what this "Master's Conference" is like beyond generalities. This is where my [fortunate] lack of experience cuts me off at the knees. This is exactly the kind of scene I would rewrite from personal experience, except the well is bone dry.

    So, to my question. For anyone who is a lawyer or has gone through this process--how exactly does this Master's Conference work? What kinds of things happen during the proceeding? Is a decision made then and there, or is there time between? Etc...

    And, possibly, is there a different way to handle this at all? If I can avoid trying to get legal details right, I'd rather go that route, but I fear there is a lack of stakes high enough for a climax. If there is some other way to do it, I'm all for suggestions. For example, would it make sense for the parents and their lawyers to meet and discuss, outside of some official conference?

    Thank you in advance for any and all suggestions and assistance. I really do appreciate it!
     
  2. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    In the US each state has different laws. In WA State, unless things have changed there is some kind of custody arbitration disagreeing parties are required to go through, but one can still appeal. The state will, however, go after child support for you eliminating legal fees if the bastard/bitch doesn't pay what the court orders.

    The court encourages joint custody arrangements when possible.

    Bastard in my case, they garnished his wages even though I didn't pursue it myself. But support was a minimum amount, what really helped was when he got a job, he was required to cover our son's health insurance. That made a big difference.

    Custody was never an issue, he abandoned us both. When my son was 12, he approached his dad. I stayed out of it at that point. They see each other a couple times a year.

    Bottom line, what state/country is your story in?
     
    Last edited: Oct 1, 2013
  3. xanadu
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    xanadu Contributing Member Contributor

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    Ah, yes, I forgot to mention that. It's set in Pennsylvania, in a fictional township, present day.

    I'm not as concerned about child support. It's the custody issue that holds the stakes for my MC--the building fear of the possibility of losing her daughter. Good to know about the encouragement of joint custody, as that's where I want it to end up (both sides have to compromise, everyone gets something, no one gets everything).

    In regards to the custody arbitration, that sounds familiar from the research I've done. Specifically I'm looking for the scene to take place in a meeting with legal weight, whether it's an actual hearing or conference or just a meeting between the two parents and their lawyers. There needs to be legal threat that my MC could lose custody of her daughter, but after some additional (side plot) events happen I want them to work it out without the need to escalate the issue further.

    I just don't know the process well enough to know what would be realistic, or how to portray such a meeting in a realistic way.

    Thanks for the insights, Ginger. I'll keep them in mind.
     
  4. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    i've never heard of a 'master's conference' and have no idea what it could be or who the 'masters' are supposed to be...

    as noted above, each state has its own version of the process, so i suggest you google for "custody battle legal process" info for the state this is taking place... you'll probably find websites of attorneys who explain it... and search for forums where you can get info from folks who have gone through it... that will be quicker and you'll get more pertinent info than from a writing site...
     
  5. xanadu
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    xanadu Contributing Member Contributor

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    Absolutely. I have been poking around various sites, and certainly intend to continue doing research. Just figured I'd inquire here to see if anyone has any firsthand experience with it, either as a lawyer or a client.

    The idea of the Master's Conference came from a site I came across dealing with the process in the Philadelphia court. It may be a local thing--I don't know. But it seems to be in tune with what Ginger referenced above with "custody arbitration."

    Thanks for the suggestion, too. It's all helping me to figure out which direction I want to go and how best to approach it.
     
  6. chicagoliz
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    chicagoliz Contributing Member Contributor

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    Although I live in PA, all of my direct experience with divorce court and child custody hearings is in IL. I can, however, tell you about certain aspects of child custody that are relatively uniform in all of the states. I can't speak specifically to a Master's Conference -- as Ginger said, all fifty states, and even often various jurisdictions within each state have different particular processes that they go through in any court case, and they all have different names.

    First: It makes no difference whatsoever that the child is adopted. Once the child is legally adopted, for all intents and purposes, the child is treated exactly the same as any biological child born to the couple.

    In all states, the welfare of the child is the priority for the courts. To the extent possible, courts want to make the child's life resemble the life he or she would have had if the divorce had not happened. Obviously, making this actually true is impossible, but the underlying philosophies of child custody laws strive toward this end. If the parents are decent parents, they want this, too. Courts also want to give 50-50 custody -- they are very reluctant to take away a parent's rights. This does not mean, however that physical custody of the child is exactly 50-50. There are many situations that make this difficult, particularly if the parents for some reason, end up living far away from each other. (And if the other parent does not agree, they would need a court's permission to take the child, and particularly move the child out of state).

    Judges also REALLY want the parties to agree on things like visitation/living/holiday schedules themselves. They will often delay setting a hearing on this sort of issue, because the parties are in the best position to set this themselves, given their particular needs and priorities, and their views on the importance of various holidays and the traditions they observe. If the parties are in such a state that they cannot do this, often some sort of mediator or arbitrator is brought in to try to get them to work together and work out a schedule.

    If your characters are unwilling to do this, and insist on using the child as a wedge in their fight against each other, they will look like really immature assholes. If that's what you want to convey about them, and the story is about, then that's fine. There certainly are people out there who do not put their child's best interest as their highest priority. (Sadly, too many.) Domestic Relations judges get burned out real fast. They see the same crap all the time, and they are sick of it. I had a client once who fought with his wife over what time he was going to pick up their DOG, because they were sharing custody. The judge did not want to hear it. I didn't even want to hear it. (And I'm so glad I don't do domestic relations anymore -- I never really wanted to do it in the first place. Mortgage foreclosure and bankruptcy was more uplifting.)
     
  7. xanadu
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    xanadu Contributing Member Contributor

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    Right, I made sure to research that one from the get-go!

    Good to know. Throughout the course of the story the parents try to work this out for themselves, and they have it at virtually 50-50, with each parent taking the child for two days during the week, the mother gets Friday (works from home) and half of Saturday, and the father gets the other half of Saturday and Sunday. It seems to be okay for a while, but the impetus for the father to seek legal action is that he feels the mother is putting work first too often (coming home late, going in early, taking off-hour calls, etc). He feels it would be better/easier for him to have the child during the week and the mother to take her on weekends, arguing that it's bad for her to "constantly" [in his view] be disappointed that her mother is late.

    The mother, on the other hand, tries as hard as she can to be on schedule, but her job is very demanding. She worries that her soon-to-be ex's arguments will win out, however, and she'll lose primary custody. From what you've said, it sounds like this is not a likely outcome if the court can help it, which is fine, as her fear does not need to be grounded in reality. But, in your experience, is there a chance that it could be considered? That would work well to raise the stakes.

    This is also good, as I don't need the issue to escalate this far. The idea is that a side plot's outcome will affect the main plot in such a way that it drives both parents to reconsider why they're making such a big deal out of it and decide to put aside their issues and work something out.

    It took me a few minutes to realize that DOG was not an acronym 0_0. Yeah, no, they're definitely not that intense about it. And they will get to the point where they work it out, which they've been trying to do. A lot of it has to do with the father's guilt on provoking the divorce (infidelity), but it's not so much that the daughter is a pawn in their fight. It's more like they have different ideas on the best way to make it work, and they're both afraid of losing more than they've already lost. Something like that.

    Thanks for the insights, Liz. Your post has been extremely helpful, and I'm really starting to get a better idea of how this chapter might go. I really appreciate it.
     
  8. chicagoliz
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    chicagoliz Contributing Member Contributor

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    As always, this would depend on a lot of factors, such as how old the child is. Taking off hour calls is not likely to persuade anyone that a custody arrangement needs to be changed. Coming home late and going in early, however, could -- either if it is affecting the father directly, in that she picks the child up late, and the father can't plan properly. For example, if he has the child TW and she has the child ThF, and they're supposed to do the exchange at 7 pm, right after dinner, but she frequently doesn't show up until 10, which is after the child's 9:00 bedtime, then he'd have a valid complaint. Maybe he outright says he's not turning her over to the mother at 10, because he put the kid to bed at 9 and he's not waking her up. He tells her to file a motion with the court if she doesn't like it. She could then file a motion to compel him to comply with the visitation order that's in place, and his response is to request to modify the visitation order, because the mother is unreliable about keeping the schedule, and it affects the child's health and school performance, because her sleep is delayed or interrupted. (He could also just file a motion to change the visitation schedule, and she could reply. He might hope that she'd just accept the altered schedule without having to go to Court. And again, this is the sort of thing that a judge doesn't want to decide. If there's a court order in place, they'd prefer to just 'rubber stamp' a revised schedule that's already been agreed to by the parties.)

    Another angle is if he finds out that, for example, she's leaving the child alone for extended periods of time on her days where she has custody. She leaves early for work or arrives home late, or even leaves for an evening meeting or something, without first calling the father to ask him to take the kid. (Or maybe one time she needs to leave and he can't take the kid, because he has something already scheduled that he can't change and she leaves the kid at home alone anyway.) He could claim there is a danger, and she's not watching her, whereas he would always be home if the kid is in his care, etc. (You could even have something minor happen -- a small fire or something.)

    So, depending on the circumstances, it certainly could be a valid worry that she could lose shared custody or primary custody (or whatever they have) to the father. She could be worried even if he threatens this and she's only been 20 minutes late picking her up a couple of times, because there are no guarantees when you go to court. Crazy things can happen. And there are plenty of things that could be made to look bad, but weren't really so bad and two calm people could overlook them, but if they're on edge emotionally, and unwilling to compromise, or want to make things look bad, they could stir up a lot of trouble. Another thing is that a judge doesn't want to be responsible for a kid dying due to a decision he makes, so if there is any actual evidence that something is going on, he could order some change in the visitation.

    Often, if this sort of issue gets heated, there are psychologists who are called in to evaluate everyone and give their opinions. The child might be appointed her own lawyer. It could get very involved and very expensive (and very dragged- out.)
     
  9. xanadu
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    xanadu Contributing Member Contributor

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    This is pretty much the size of it.

    I think a better way to go would be to show the events before the actual meeting and then the fallout after. I've actually come up with a good way to integrate some other characters into the after-events to provide some extra drama. This way I don't have to worry about the nitty-gritty details of the actual proceeding, but can give an overview of what happened/how it went/how it affected the characters (especially that last one). Especially if the official decision is delayed (which according to my research is possible), I think this would be the ideal way of handling it.

    Thanks again, Liz. Your posts have been an enormous help in figuring this thing out.
     

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