"My ex has a court order for custody of our child, but our child is living with me. What should I do?"
Many folks choose to do nothing. Hope for the best. They think: “I have what I want – my child is living with me. I don’t want to pick a fight with their Dad/Mom. I don’t want to hassle with the courts. I don’t want to pay a lawyer.”
We get it. No one wants to pay a lawyer or deal with the legal system. But in our experience, doing nothing is terrible for the child. There’s a reason your ex dropped that child off with you – something negative is likely going on in their lives. Or maybe they just don’t care enough about the child to keep them. Either way, your child is not the priority, and believe me, your child knows it.
The right thing to do is almost always to go to court and get a formal order giving you legal custody of the child.
If you were previously married to the child’s other parent, you’ll need to go back to the court where you got divorced. If you were not married to the child’s other parent, you’ll likely need to go to Juvenile Court. The Juvenile Court of available through their intake office for you to fill out – they don’t necessarily require a lawyer, though it’s going to go more smoothly if you have one.
Either way, you’ll file a Petition that simply says the truth: that your ex dropped the child off with you to live. Many times, your ex will agree to a temporary order transferring custody. If they don’t, you have to ask yourself, why not?
If your ex drops that child off with you, but then is not willing to sign an agreement giving you legal custody, that means that s/he wants to have the power to yank that child out of your home at any time, or possibly to continue receiving child support for a child s/he’s not supporting. None of this is about what’s best for your child.
Furthermore, without an Order giving you custody, you are limited in how you can meet your child’s needs. You may not be able to enroll your child in school, or get your child medical care.
If there’s one thing we’ve learned in twenty years of practicing family law, it’s how important it is for kids to see their parents as someone who is in charge. Children need the security of a parent who does things right, so they can focus on their school, friendships, and extra-curricular activities – on the things that help them grow to be happy, responsible, independent adults. What children do NOT need is to see their parent take short-cuts, drop them off with whoever is available, and to live their lives wondering where they are going to be living, and with whom.
Simply having physical possession of your child is not enough to provide for your child’s needs. Your child needs stability. A court order gives you the power to provide your child not only with a home, but with a stable home. Our advice is therefore: hire that lawyer. Go get that Order.