Child Custody Mediation: An Invaluable Process
If you have minor children and you separate or seek a divorce from your child’s parent, you will need to decide who will have custody of your children and how they will be taken care of. Although there are specific legal definitions, in short “Custody” means:
Who your child will live with and where (“physical custody”)
Who will make important “legal custody” decisions for your children (health care, education, other important decisions) and how.
All together, this is often called a “parenting plan.”
Your Parenting Plan
You need a parenting plan that is in the best interest of your child.
For “Physical custody,” which means time with the children, think about activities, overnights, and day-to-day care:
Where should my child be during the week? On weekends?
Where should my child be for holidays, summer vacations, and special days?
Which parent will be in charge of which activities (sports, music, homework)?
Which parent is in charge at which times?
How will my child get from one parent to the other (Transportation/pick ups and drop offs)? Who will pay the costs?
For “Legal custody,” which means making decisions about the children, be clear and specific about which decisions each parent can make on their own and which decisions you will make together:
Things such as Schools, Daycare, Religion, Medical and dental care
When and Why Mediation?
If you and the other parent are not able to informally reach a parenting plan, per California Family Code Section 3170, the court will order you and the other parent to meet with a professional child mediator before you can appear before a judge and have the court render a decision regarding custody.
The goals of mediation are to:
Help you and the other parent make a parenting plan that’s in the best interest of your children;
Help you and the other parent make a parenting plan that lets your children spend time with both parents, assuming it is safe and healthy to do so;
Avoid expensive, lengthy and emotionally taxing custody litigation.
What Happens in Mediation
Mediation involves both parents and a professional mediator. Attorneys rarely attend. Mediation is a way to make decisions about your children without the time, expense and emotional cost of contested, litigated custody “battle” in court. You and the other parent keep control over the outcome by making your own agreement for how you will take care of your children, instead of leaving it up to a judge to make the decision for you. The legal term for this agreement is “stipulation.” It is also called a “parenting plan” or a “parenting agreement.”
What do mediators do?
Although most child custody mediators are experienced in family and marriage counseling, mediation is not counseling. A mediator meets with both parents and works with them to try to agree on a plan that is best for their child. In fact they are duty bound per Family Code Section 3180 which provides that the mediator has the duty to assess the needs and interests of the child involved in the controversy, and shall use his or her best efforts to effect a settlement of the custody or visitation dispute that is in the best interest of the child.
Guidelines for mediation:
Treat each other with respect. You will both get a chance to explain your ideas.
Listen to each other and try to find real solutions.
Put the children first. Think about what they need and can handle.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is what I say in mediation confidential?
In some counties such as Santa Clara County, Lonich Patton Erlich Policastri’s main county of practice, what you say is completely confidential. The other party can’t use it in court in any way. This is pursuant to Family Code Section 3177 which provides that Mediation proceedings pursuant to this chapter shall be held in private and shall be confidential. All communications, verbal or written, from the parties to the mediator made in the proceeding are official information within the meaning of Section 1040 of the Evidence Code.
In other counties, such as Santa Cruz and Alameda Counties, mediators make “recommendations” to the judge when the parents don’t reach an agreement in mediation. What you say in mediation can be reported to the judge and to the other parent and his or her attorney – but it’s confidential as far as anyone else goes.
What happens if we can’t agree on everything in mediation?
The failure to reach an agreement on every single issue does not mean that the mediation was unsuccessful. Even if you can only agree on vacations and holidays, or perhaps a temporary schedule for the next six months, you still have achieved success. In these instances, though, what happens after mediation (if there is not a full agreement) depends on the court.
What if the other parent and I cannot agree on anything?
Mediation can still be a valuable tool. For example, even if you can’t agree on a parenting plan, you may be able to narrow the scope of the dispute with an idea of what the other parent’s main areas of concerns are. For example, if you are a working parent and the other is not, they may be concerned about your parenting ability or experience. Or perhaps you have concerns about the other parent’s ability to control their anger.
By learning of these concerns in mediation, even in the absence of an agreement, perhaps the parties can take parenting classes or anger management counseling that will placate the others parent’s concerns.
Should I meet with my lawyer prior to Mediation: Yes.
While mediation is not intended to be an adversarial process, preparation with your attorney is invaluable and will lead to greater success. Your lawyer can help explain the process and educate you on the issues that should be addressed during the mediation. A good attorney can also assist you in how to communicate your concerns and how to ensure that you have sufficient time.
Will my lawyer look at my parenting plan before I go to court?
Yes. Your lawyer should go over this agreement (also called a “custody and visitation agreement”) before it becomes a permanent child custody order.
Good luck with your parenting plan.