Child Custody Mediation: Top 10 Tips For Avoiding Mistakes

Parents are increasingly turning to mediation to help them overcome their differences relating to child custody. With the aid of an impartial third-party mediator, parents work to create a plan for raising their children after divorce. In the mediation process, both parents work with the mediator to collaborate on creating a parenting plan that they can both agree on.

Child Custody Mediation: Top 10 Tips For Avoiding Mistakes

Here is a list we provide our clients on what not to do and say at a child custody mediation.

Tip 1 – Do Not Annoy The Other Parent

Don’t argue with the other parent or interrupt them. Those strategies frequently fail, leading the mediator to think you are the issue.

Tip 2 – Do Not Bring Up Marital Troubles That Have Nothing To Do With The Kids

Do not muddy the waters by bringing up anything that is not explicitly linked to custody and parenting time. Keep in mind that this is not a typical divorce mediation. One of the best examples of what not to say at a child custody mediation is to recite a long list of things you dislike about the other parent.

Tip 3 – Do Not Refer to The Children as “My” Kids.

Instead, use “our” children when referring to your kids. It is less antagonistic and more inclusive. And make an effort to frame your comments in terms of what you two, as parents, can do collectively to make the experience as pleasant and easy as possible for your kids.

A person who seems possessive of the children will not be found to be the parent who fosters a relationship between the children and the other parent, which is one of the factors the Court will consider when establishing a custody arrangement. This is another warning sign for the mediator.

Tip 4 – Do Not Let Your Feelings Control You.

Despite everyone’s best efforts, there will inevitably be instances when an offer or suggestion during the mediation will make you mad. Don’t use that as an excuse to lose your temper. It will just undermine the work that has been accomplished. Although mediators are skilled at soothing emotions, if you feel that your emotions are running amok, request a brief break.

Tip 5 – Do Not Assign Blame Or Play The Blame Game.

Yes, there are instances when you must mention that the other parent abuses alcohol or drugs or poses a risk to the children, but try to frame the conversation in child-centered terms.

Tip 6 – Do Not Discuss “My Rights.”

Child custody is not about your rights. The children matter to the mediator and the judge, not the rights of you or the other parent.

Tip 7 – Do Not Dress Like You’re Going Out To Work In The Garden.

Likewise, do not dress like you are getting ready to go out with the girls for a night on the town. A mediator will have difficulty looking past the image you project. Underneath your clothes may lie the heart of a fantastic parent, but appearances can be deceiving. Get a haircut, take a shower, do your hair, and dress professionally.

Tip 8 – Do Not Sign Anything During Mediation Without Discussing it With Your Attorney

If you sign a child custody agreement at mediation, it will be challenging for your attorney to change the settlement if you later change your mind.

Tip 9 – Do Not Lean Forward, Loom Over, or Focus Your Gaze On The Mediator or The Other Parent.

While intimidation techniques may be effective in a business setting or at a sporting event, they are ineffective during custody mediation.

Tip 10 – Prepare in Advance

Gather all relevant documents, such as financial records, school reports, and medical information, to support your case.

This is not a complete list. Remember that the mediator is primarily concerned with protecting the children’s interests. Being your best self can assist the mediator in achieving that objective.

How To Get The Most Out of Your Child Custody Mediation

Most states require the parties to attend mediation whenever there is a question of child custody in a divorce case. In some states, mediation only serves as a setting where a mediator assists the parents in reaching a child custody settlement. In those states, the mediator’s opinions are not binding and do not have to be followed.

In other states, the mediator will provide the judge with a recommended custody plan. In that situation, the mediator’s recommendation may determine your entire child custody case. So, how do you ensure you don’t say the wrong thing at the mediation?

Here are some pointers for a productive mediation session:

  • When making decisions, keep your child’s best interests in mind.

  • Listen to the other parent and the mediator.

  • Get enough rest the night before and put aside any issues with the other parent on a personal level.

  • Be polite, composed, and businesslike.

  • Remain focused and refrain from bringing up unrelated topics.

  • Be prepared to make adjustments to your schedule and plan.

  • Bring several ideas for a schedule and a plan to discuss.

  • Make a list of your issues and concerns to bring up at mediation.

  • Bring a list of the holidays your family celebrates and how you would like those divided.

  • Bring paperwork, such as work schedules and your child’s academic calendar.

How to Prepare for a Child Custody Mediation?

First, remember that child custody isn’t about the parents. Child custody is all about the kids. You must commit to acting in their best interests; being ready is the first step.

Be prepared to discuss what you want regarding your kid’s custody with the mediator. The following is a checklist that we have found helpful for our clients when preparing for a child custody mediation:

  • What type of custody are you requesting? Joint legal custody or sole legal custody?  

  • Which type of physical custody do you want? Joint physical custody or sole physical custody?  

  • What kind of parenting schedule are you looking for? Do you have the flexibility at work to exercise parental time on the terms you want? Is daycare available?  

  • What kind of holiday schedule do you want? The major holidays most parents address in their parenting plans are Christma Day, Christmas Eve, Yom Kippur, Hanukkah, Passover, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Labor Day, Easter, Memorial Day, July 4th, Labor Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Child’s birthday, Spring Break, Christmas Break, any other special day for your family.

  • What kind of phone interaction are you looking for? Which days of the week, which hour of the day, and how long?

  • Who will pay for the transportation if a parent lives out of town or out of state?

  • Which party will claim the child as a dependent for city, state, and federal tax purposes?

  • What happens if one or both parties require a change in their parenting schedule?      

Put your child’s needs first during the mediation process and prioritize what is best for them and their daily routine. If you put your kid’s interests first, the decisions you make at the mediation will seem simple.

A good video discussing child custody mediation strategies can be found here.

What Questions Do Mediators Ask During Child Custody Mediation?

The goal of every good mediator is to help parents reach a fair settlement on all child custody issues. To do this, the mediator is going to accomplish two things:

  • Understand each parent’s viewpoint on custody matters and the evidence that supports that viewpoint.

  • Assist the parents in coming to a fair custody arrangement that they both agree on, and that is in the child’s best interest.

To accomplish this goal, the mediator will take some time to get to know you and understand your perspective on what is best for your kids. You can expect the mediator to ask you questions that will be similar to the following:

  • Tell me a little about yourself.

  • Tell me about your spouse.

  • Tell me about your kids.

  • Tell me about the current living situation of the kids.

  • Tell me about your kids’ schooling.

  • Discuss with me the current transportation issues.

  • Are there any concerns about abuse or neglect of the kids?

  • Are you or your spouse dating anyone new?

  • Tell me about your job and income.

  • How are the family finances?

  • What do you want out of this mediation?

  • Have any settlement offers been made, and what was the response to the last offer?

Take some time to go through this list and create a list of your responses to these questions. Think about your kids and what will be best for them.

What Documents Do You Need to Take to a Custody Mediation?

Here is a list of common documents and information requested by child custody mediators. Getting bringing this information to the mediation will make your mediation much simpler.

  • Bring a copy of your custody petition and any supporting paperwork. Bring the proposed custody and parenting plan you filed with the Court.

  • Bring your suggested parenting strategy. Bring your recommended plan and any additional notes to your mediation session. Even if your co-parent flatly rejects your suggested plan, by having a proposed plan, you’ll acquire a better understanding of what matters need to be resolved and the outcomes you want to see.

  • Bring your calendar. Be prepared to talk about your daily job routine as well as your long-term travel plans and other obligations. If your work schedule is flexible, bring evidence of how and when it is decided.

  • Bring the calendar for your child’s school. Make sure you have a calendar that lists any major field excursions, holidays, parent-teacher conferences, and days for early dismissals. Bring your tentatively prepared schedule for the upcoming academic year as well.

  • Bring a list of the extracurricular activities scheduled for your child. All the extracurricular activities that your child participates in or intends to participate in should have a timetable that you can refer to at the mediation. Bring notes on the times when the activities’ signups take place as well, if you can. Don’t forget to list seasonal activities that may not even be planned or happening yet.

  • Bring your all relevant contact information. Bring the phone numbers and addresses of significant persons in your child’s life. You should have a list of names and phone numbers of potential babysitters and emergency contacts. You should also have the phone numbers of your child’s school, physician, and extracurricular activity providers.

  • Bring money to pay for the mediation. You’ll have to pay the mediator unless you’re making use of mediation services that are provided without charge (like court-ordered mediation). Ask the mediator about payment options before the session, and make sure you and your co-parent agree on how to split the costs.

Final Tips on Child Custody Mediation

Mediation can be a stressful process. Take some time to take care of yourself. Sleep as much as you can the night before the mediation. Be rested because meditation can be demanding. When you’re rested, it’s much simpler to maintain your composure and think clearly.

Finally, maintain an open mind. Remember that you probably won’t receive everything you want during the mediation. Your partner might view what’s best for the kids from a different angle. Instead of jumping to conclusions, try to understand where they are coming from. The mediator might also provide recommendations for parenting time and custody arrangements that you hadn’t considered.

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Tim McDuffey is a practicing attorney in the State of Missouri. Tim is a licensed member of the Missouri Bar and Missouri Bar Association.

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