Any time that a Dissolution of Marriage or Paternity matter is filed with the Court and there are pending child custody and/or child visitation orders, a Family Court Services Mediation appointment is mandatory. A mediation appointment is an appointment between both parents together and a Family Court Services Mediator only. Attorneys for either party, or any other third party, may not be present. The purpose of a Mediation appointment is to, hopefully, arrive at a mutually-agreeable child custody and visitation arrangement between mom and dad that will be adopted by the Court as the current child custody and visitation orders. The Mediator’s purpose is to be able to speak together with the parents and, through each party’s input and concerns, reach a mutually-agreeable child custody and visitation arrangement that serves the best interests of both parents and the minor children.
At Mediation, you are encouraged to reach an agreement that the Mediator will approve. However, this is not mandatory. It is important to know that, no matter how much your Mediator encourages you to reach agreement, or may even tell you that you have to reach agreement at the Mediation appointment, you do not have to agree to any arrangement that you are not relatively or completely happy with. Whether you reach agreement or not, the Mediator will submit a recommendation to the Judge prior to your hearing date. The Judge most often adopts the Mediator’s recommendation at the time of hearing and that agreement becomes your current child custody and visitation order. If you indicated during Mediation that you agreed to a custody and visitation arrangement that you were actually not happy with, the Mediator’s recommendation will advise the Judge that you did agree to the proposal at the time of the Mediation appointment. Trying to convince the Judge that you were not actually in agreement with the proposal, and now wish to change it, is extremely hard to accomplish at the time of hearing. This can usually only be done if the other parent agrees with your requested modification at the time of hearing. That situation is often very unlikely to happen.
If both parents are in agreement to or have already been exercising a child custody and visitation arrangement that has been working for them, the Mediation process can be avoided. Rather than attend Mediation in a situation such as this, the parties will simply have drafted a Stipulation that sets forth their child custody and visitation arrangement. Both parents will then review, date and sign the Stipulation and there will be a date and signature line for the Judge. The signed Stipulation will be forwarded to the Court for review by the Judge. If the Judge finds the custody and visitation arrangement to be fair and promote the best interests of all parties, he or she will date and sign the Stipulation and it will be filed with the Court, making the child custody and visitation arrangement contained in the Stipulation the current child custody and visitation orders.
It is always best to arrive at your own child custody and visitation orders whenever possible. After all, no one knows each of your schedules and your child(ren)’s need more than you. However, the Mediation process proves to be a great safety net and assurance that child custody and visitation orders are successfully entered, in situations where agreement cannot be reached between the parents.