Whether it's in a divorce or some other setting where parents decide to end the relationship, one of the hardest-fought and bitter battles is over child custody. Both parents love their children and want to be a part of their everyday lives. And, for whatever reason, they can't come to an agreement on their own.
It doesn't have to be that way for you, though. With the help of a neutral third party, or "mediator," child custody mediation gives you the chance to create a child custody plan that's fair to you both.
Preparing for Mediation
There are several important steps you should take before you start child custody mediation:
- Consider getting legal advice from an attorney to get an idea of the legal pitfalls to avoid and legal interests to protect when it comes to custody
- Write out daily schedules for yourself and your child
- Prepare written custody and visitation proposals
- Gather all relevant records about your child, such as report cards, letters from your child's therapist, etc.
In preparing your custody proposals, think of special circumstances such as holidays and birthdays. Also, remember to plan for transportation details and exchange locations.
Steps in the Mediation Process
Although mediation of child custody disputes is normally voluntary, in some states it's mandatory before a court will step-in and settle any disputes. In either case, the steps involved in the mediation process are the same:
- Initial meeting with the mediator
- Identifying and categorizing issues
- Discussing solutions with a give-and-take attitude
- Preparing your custody agreement
How long the mediation process will take depends on several factors, including the number of custody issues, the complexity of the issues and both parents' willingness to reach an agreement.
Initial Meeting with the Mediator
Arrive at mediation with an open mind. Be willing to listen. Everyone should be focusing on what's in the best interests of your child.
The mediator will sit down with you both and explain the steps in the mediation process. The mediator is neutral and doesn't represent either of you. The mediator won't give legal advice or provide counseling to you, either. The mediator's only job is to help you come to a custody agreement that's reasonable and fair to you both.
Issue Identification and Categorization
The mediator will help you determine the child custody issues that need to be resolved. The issues will normally be categorized in terms of time and importance. Sometimes it's better to tackle the easier issues first so that the early success in the process leads to cooperation with the more difficult issues later.
Organizing the Issues
It's useful to have the custody issues divided into five layers:
- The regular custody and visitation schedule
- The list of exceptions that override the regular schedule, such as holidays and vacations
- How the parents will communications with each other about the children
- Special issues, such as religious training, medical care, activities and private school
- The method for changing the custody agreement in the future
Give-and-Take Discussion of Solutions
The time spent on each of the custody issue layers will depend on your family's situation. For the mediation process to work, you each need to openly discuss what you think is fair and be willing to listen to the other side. You also each need to focus on and be guided by what's in the best interest of your child.
Preparation of the Custody Agreement
Once you've discussed all the custody issues with the other parent, the mediator will help you prepare the child custody agreement. You should carefully examine the agreement to make sure it accurately reflects your understanding of the custody arrangement. Your attorney should also examine the agreement before it's submitted to the court for approval.
Any issues not settled in mediation will have to be settled by the court.
This all may seem like a lot to do. It is. You also may feel overwhelmed at times. That's natural. But, if you can both agree that your child comes first, then with the help of the mediator you can settle your differences in fair way and without a lot of the stress and bitter arguments that's so common in many child custody disputes.
Questions for Your Attorney
- Can you be involved in mediation and give me legal advice throughout the process?
- What happens if we can't agree on anything at all during mediation?
- How hard is it to make custody changes? Should I be firm about getting what I feel is important in the initial custody arrangement?