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Child Custody | Family

How Does Child Custody Mediation Work?

8 min read
Philip Ahn, Attorney

by Philip Ahn, Attorney

If you are in the midst of a child custody case, it is likely that a judge will (or already has) ordered both parents to attend child custody mediation before taking your dispute to court. Those that are not completely familiar with the mediation process may not be sure how the process works. 

Child custody mediation allows parents to resolve disagreements about custody and visitation rights with the help of a third-party, non-partial mediator. If an agreement can be made, the mediator will help the parents draft a parenting plan. In the case that an agreement cannot be reached, a judge will consider recommendations made by the mediator. 

Child custody mediation is designed to help parents work together to create a parenting plan that they both agree on and is in the child’s best interest. It is recommended that you consult with your attorney before engaging in the mediation process. We can connect you today with a local child custody attorney.

What is Child Custody Mediation?

Mediation helps parents to resolve disputes with the aid of a neutral mediator. Child custody mediators facilitate the mediation process. They assist parents to negotiate custodial rights, visitation, child support, and other areas of concern. 

Child custody mediation can be court-ordered or voluntary. In either case, the recommendations and opinions of the mediator are considered by the court, but the judge makes the final decision. Mediation can be ordered during the initial child custody case or when a parent requests a child custody modification. 

There are three goals of child custody mediation, they include:

  • Assisting the parents with creating a parenting plan that is in the child’s best interest
  • Helping the parents to ensure that the child is allowed time with both parents
  • Offers parents tools for dealing with disagreements, resentment, and anger

What Are The Benefits of Child Custody Mediation?

Most family court judges require parents that have child custody disputes to attend mediation because it can be beneficial for the child, the parents, and the courts. Listed below are benefits that child custody mediation can provide:

  • Cost Savings: Though you must pay for mediation, it can be far less expensive than taking your child custody case to court. Furthermore, if you are able to come to an agreement with your ex, it can save you thousands of dollars in legal fees. 
  • Increased Participation: Parents that work together to create a parenting plan they both agree with, are more likely to be invested in the plan. This can lead to fewer disagreements, increased follow-through, and more satisfaction. 
  • More Control: During mediation, both parents work in tandem to reach an agreement on all disputed elements of the child custody agreement. If the case goes to court, the judge will make the decisions. 
  • It’s Confidential: Unlike child custody court proceedings, mediation is confidential. What occurs during the mediation process is not made public record. 

Steps in the Mediation Process

The child custody mediation process is typically the same for parents that initially agree to mediation and those that have been court-ordered to attend. Understanding what the process entails can help to alleviate unnecessary anxiety and allow you to focus on the benefits of child custody mediation. Learn more about the steps in the mediation process below. 

Initial Meeting 

The initial meeting typically consists of setting the ground rules for interactions between the parents and setting expectations. In some cases, parents prefer to be in separate rooms while the mediator travels back and forth between the two. In others, parents are able to negotiate in the same room. 

Identify all Contested Issues

Subsequent meetings focus on identifying all contested issues and major concerns. The most important discussions typically involve concerns about:

  • Custody rights and visitation schedules
  • Weekend, holiday, and special event calendars
  • How changes in child custody will be decided
  • How parents can effectively communicate with each about issues concerning their child

Child custody mediation sessions can take 2 – 3 hours. The time spent, lessons learned, and agreements made during mediation can serve as a building block for a stronger relationship between the parents as they move forward. 

Negotiate and Discuss Solutions

During the mediation process, the mediator will help you and your co-parent to find solutions to issues that you currently disagree on. It’s best to remember to keep the child’s best interest in mind during negotiations. As you work with the other parent to create a parenting plan, other issues may arise that the mediator can help you to resolve.

The negotiation and solution-finding process of child custody mediation allows parents to create solutions that work for their family and are in the best interest of their child, instead of relying solely on a judge’s opinion. 

Conclude the Mediation Process

Child custody mediation can end with a signed parenting plan that both parents agree to, or it can conclude with no agreement at all. If the parents agree to the terms of the newly devised parenting plan and both sign it, then they will typically need to attend court only for the judge’s approval of the plan. 

Once signed, the parenting plan is a legal document. If either parent does not fulfill the duties outlined in the parenting plan, they may be subject to legal consequences as well as decreased custodial rights. 

Is Child Custody Mediation Mandatory?

Most child custody mediations are voluntary. However, depending on the state, judges may require parents to attend child custody mediation before they make a decision on any contested case. If it is court-ordered, parents are required by law to attend. 

Disregarding a court order to attend child custody can result in being held in contempt of court as well as have a major impact on the final child custody decisions about custody, visitation, and child support obligations. 

What Happens if We Can’t Agree on Anything During Mediation?

In the event that parents can’t come to an agreement during the mediation process, the case will likely proceed to court. It is important to note that the flexibility and control that you have during child custody mediation will be lost when your child custody case goes to court. When in court, parents must adhere to the ruling made by the judge. 

The court will consider the recommendations of the mediator in tandem with the evidence presented, recommendations of child custody evaluators, witness testimony, and other pertinent evidence revealed during the hearing. 

Unfortunately, it is not always feasible for parents to agree during mediation. Parents that have irreconcilable disputes must prepare for a potentially long and expensive child custody case. A child custody lawyer can be beneficial to people that are able to come to an agreement with their ex during mediation, but they are especially necessary during a highly contested child custody battle. 

Do Lawyers go With You to Mediation? 

Lawyers are permissible in mediation, but it is your choice to bring your child custody lawyer with you or not. In general, there are three potential scenarios for child custody mediation sessions, they include:

  • Both parties bring their lawyers with them
  • One party brings a child custody lawyer
  • Neither party brings an attorney

In the case that both parents choose to attend mediation sessions without their attorney (which is common), it is normal for each party to consult with a child custody lawyer before mediation sessions begin. If only one parent brings legal representation, the mediator will design the mediation process to counter any potential imbalance of power. 

Regardless of your choice to involve a lawyer during mediation sessions or not, it is typically in your best interest to consult with a child custody lawyer to learn more about the process, your rights, as well as your responsibilities. At a minimum, it is recommended that you meet with an attorney before mediation and once a final parenting agreement is agreed to, but before it is signed. 

How Expensive Will it be to Hire a Child Custody Lawyer?

Child custody attorneys can assist with creating a negotiation strategy, understanding your rights and obligations, and reviewing potential agreements to ensure that they are in your child’s best interest. 

While most people easily agree that the services of a child custody lawyer are necessary, they also agree that they can’t afford the cost of a traditional lawyer. Most child custody lawyers charge $3k – $5k just to start and charge an additional $300 – $500 per hour on top of that. 

High upfront legal costs prevent many parents from seeking the legal representation that they need. Fortunately, there are methods to save money on legal fees. One of the most important cost-saving strategies is to develop and maintain a good relationship with your co-parent. This will facilitate less time in mediation, less required from your lawyer, and easier approval from a judge. 

Save Money With an Unbundled Lawyer

Many parents can’t fathom the thought of paying a child custody lawyer thousands of dollars in upfront fees, which is why they turn to an unbundled attorney instead. Unbundled legal services offered by Access Legal help to save money by eliminating high upfront fees and decreasing the number of hours billed by your attorney.

Parents that hire an unbundled attorney are prepared to take care of some tasks on their own (i.e. serving documentation, filing paperwork, or drafting a parental plan) while allowing their attorney to handle the more complex matters such as reviewing parental plans, advising on family law, negotiating with your ex’s lawyer, etc. 

Parents that hire an unbundled attorney do not have to worry about paying exorbitant upfront fees. The cost of unbundled legal services starts as low as $500 – $1500. It is important to note that unbundled legal services may not be a good fit for every case. 

If your child custody dispute is more complex, our network of small law firms and independent unbundled attorneys also offer affordable rates for full-representation. Contact us to get connected with an unbundled lawyer today. 

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