On AllExperts, I received this question about child custody in Germany and some related matters:
I am an American living abroad in Germany. 5 months ago I married an Estonian man and gave birth to our daughter. Due to a series of unfortunate events we are now in the process of divorcing and he has threatened to have people lie in court that I abuse our child to have her taken away from me. He is often rough with our daughter and I had, on many occasions, needed to take her away from him for fear he would hurt her. Our daughter has a serious heart condition and requires frequent medical care and medication daily. I am afraid that when we go to court over custody he will win and not provide the care she needs. As the mother, what are my legal rights in terms of sole custody in Germany? And what may be the best way that I can proceed with my case? Additionally, he refuses to get her any type of documentation and so she remains undocumented in all countries and I am worried about how this might effect the custody case.
Because this is quite a standard situation and these questions come up again and again, I will publish the answer here as well, which supplements my FAQ on child custody law in Germany:
Your rights as the mother are exactly the same as those of the father. You are both parents, you both decided to get married and be parents together, and you both have shared custody until a court decides otherwise.
Only a family court in the country in which the child lives (Germany) can change custody and award sole custody to one parent.
The mutual allegations won’t carry much weight with the family court because (a) the courts hear these allegations all the time and can usually tell if something is made-up or not, (b) a custody case is a forward-looking case, i.e. the court is more interested in the future and who will be the better suited parent in the future, (c) you picked your husband and he picked you as his wife, so if you are now portraying each other as monsters, it will fall back on both your ability to exercise judgment.
I don’t quite understand what you mean with documentation. When your child was born, you must have received a birth certificate. It should be registered at the local Standesamt. If not, you should go there and do that. If you don’t have a birth certificate, just ask for another copy to be printed.
If you mean passports, then ultimately you would need to go to court to get permissions to apply for passports of the child alone if he continues to refuse any cooperation. But unless you want to travel soon, that’s not urgent. Keep in mind also, that all involved countries (Germany, Estonia and the USA) are members of the Hague Child Abduction Convention, so that none of you can remove the child from Germany without the consent of the other parent.
The family court will most likely try to find a solution for shared custody because a few months into the life of the child, it’s too early to tell who will be better suited as a parent. If you are a responsible and caring mother, I don’t see any risk of you losing custody, really.
A good way might be to go to the Jugendamt (Child & Youth Services) and ask them for mediation. It usually is not successful, but this way you document your willingness to cooperate, and they will document both your ideas and characters and will testify in court. As professionals, their testimony will weigh much more than that of some friends of your husband who suddenly pop up from nowhere.
It’s gonna be tough, but if you focus on showing that you are a good mother instead of bringing negative evidence against the father, you should stand a good chance.
With over 1,000 answered questions, my AllExperts profile is one of the best sources on German law for English speakers. Besides the FAQ on this blog, of course.