Breaking up is hard to do in any relationship. Usually, it's even harder when there are children involved. Whether it's a divorce or another relationship, parents need to come up with a child custody plan and arrangements. That's not always an easy and smooth process because both parents typically want the most time their child.
In the end, parents often find themselves in long, stressful and expensive courtroom battles. You can avoid these problems by working out a child custody plan through mediation. Here, a neutral third party, or "mediator," helps you and the other parent discuss and negotiate custody arrangements that are good for the child and fair to both parents.
Best Interests of the Child
Your main focus in discussing the child custody arrangements with the other parent should be what's in the best interests of the child. This is the standard used by courts in deciding custody issues. It means determining what will best serve a child's overall well-being.
Every family situation is different, and the custody plan should be tailored to fit your specific situation. Some factors to consider include:
- The child's relationship with each parent
- Best home environment
- Distance of parents from each other
- Location of extended family
Throughout the mediation process and negotiations, the mediator will help the parents focus on the child's best interests.
Types of Child Custody
During your custody discussions, you'll need to decide if you want physical joint or sole custody. Joint custody is when both parents alternate care and custody of their child. It doesn't have to be set up as a 50/50 time-sharing arrangement, but it often is equal or nearly-equal shared custody.
Sole custody is when one parent has full custody of the child, while the other parent receives visitation rights.
There are several variations of joint and sole custody. The mediator will help you figure out the best arrangement for the child and the parents.
Consider "Physical" & "Legal" Custody
A good starting point is for parents to think about who will have physical and legal custody. Physical custody is where the child actually is, while legal custody is the decision-making authority of each parent.
You should discuss in mediation the types of decisions that will require both parents to agree and which decisions either parent may make on their own. For example, custody plans often require both parents' agreement on decisions involving:
- Certain kinds of medical care, such as orthodontia
- Religious training
- Private or public school
Joint Custody Should Be the Goal
For most family situations, it's best for a child to have access to both parents. Joint custody allows both parents to be able to play an important role in the child's life. However, in order to make this work, both parents need to cooperate and compromise with each other to a higher degree than sole custody. It works best when both parents live in the same area and get along with each other.
Before and during mediation, it's always a good idea for both parents to talk to their lawyers for help understanding their legal rights and options.
Cooperation is the Key
During the child custody discussions, you should try to have as open a mind as possible and be willing to listen to the other parent. If both of you are open, you'll have a better chance to brainstorm solutions to the custody issues that will work best for the entire family.
Keep in mind, too, that there's not a one-size-fits-all custody plan that will work for all families. But by examining truthfully your family situation and the needs of the child, you can come up with fair and effective custody plan without a lot of the stress and bitterness that's often present in child custody disputes.
Questions for Your Attorney
- What type of child custody options do I have during mediation?
- What child custody options do I have if I plan on taking another job and moving to another state?
- Is mediation required in my state? What are the next steps if an agreement can't be reached in mediation?