California: Prepare for Court-Ordered Custody Mediation

All parties litigating custody and visitation in California are required to attend free mediation if they cannot reach full resolution on their own.

In this court-ordered mediation, also known as mandatory mediation, the parties in a case sit down together with a mental health professional, who helps them talk through their disagreements with the aim of developing a parenting plan both agree on. Once they have an agreement, they can settle the case.

Some counties require parents to complete an orientation before mediation; check with your attorney or superior court.

Custody X Change is software that creates parenting plans and schedules to help you prepare for mediation.

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The basics of court-ordered mediation

Court-ordered mediation lasts no more than a few hours, and is done in one or two sessions.

In that time, a court employee ― a psychologist, marriage and family counselor or social worker ― guides parents through a discussion of what might be best for their children in terms of legal custody, physical custody and a parenting schedule. Beyond helping the parents to agree on a plan, the mediator also works to reduce bitterness.

Courts prefer parents make decisions together, rather than let a judge decide. Mediation is an effort to move parents in that direction so they maintain their autonomy and don't congest the court system unnecessarily.

Typically, the parents and mediator are the only people in the room, but each parent can request to bring a neutral support person who doesn't participate. Occasionally, mediators will also interview the children involved in the case. In situations with domestic violence or restraining orders, the parents are able to meet with the mediator one at a time.

Custody mediation is restricted to the topics of child custody and visitation. No peripheral issues, such as child support or divorce, can be covered.

If you want to discuss broader topics or meet for more than a few hours, you and the other parent can decide to pay for private mediation (see below).

Version 1: Recommending mediation

Two versions of court-ordered mediation exist. Ask your superior court which it uses.

Some counties use what's known as "recommending mediation" or "recommending counseling." In these counties, mediators (also called recommending counselors) inform the court of what happens during sessions. The mediator shares a report the parties, their lawyers and the court before the next hearing in the case.

If parents agree on a plan during recommending mediation, the report consists mostly of the agreed-upon points. Unless either party objects within ten days, the judge usually signs to create a final order, and the parents have successfully settled.

If parents do not reach consensus, the report will include the mediator's child custody recommendation and reasoning. The mediator may recommend sole or joint legal and physical custody, and can also suggest other tools like restraining orders, a custody evaluation or child counsel. The judge takes the mediator's report into consideration, along with all evidence, when making decisions in the case.

Recommending mediation is considered confidential because the resulting report can only be viewed by the parties, their lawyers and people affiliated with the court. However, parents must be aware that what they say in recommending mediation does not stay in the room and could be read by their judge, as well as affect their mediator's recommendation.

Version 2: Non-recommending mediation

In counties using nonrecommending mediation, the details of what goes on during a session cannot be shared with the court.

If the parents do not decide on a parenting plan, the mediator notifies the court, but does not provide a recommendation or any other additional information.

If parents do come to a full understanding, the mediator writes up their mutual decisions in the form of a parenting plan and submits it to the judge for approval. The parties have 10 days to object to the plan if they change their mind and or don't feel it represents the decisions reached in mediation. If there are no objections, the judge usually signs the plan, making it a final order reached via settlement.

Preparing for court-ordered mediation

If you walk into mediation ready, you're much more likely to walk out with an agreement.

Bring at least one parenting plan and one custody and visitation schedule to your session, so you can demonstrate concretely what you feel is best for your children. You may want to bring multiple options, in case the other parent is more open to one idea than another. Your attorney can help you create these documents, or Custody X Change can walk you through the process step by step.

You can also bring items like report cards or medical records to help persuade the other parent to compromise.

Tips for parents going to court-ordered mediation

  • Learn if mediators in your county make recommendations to the court; if so, be careful not say or do anything in mediation that could hurt your request for custody.
  • Meet with an attorney beforehand; if not possible, prepare thoroughly on your own so you come knowing where you're willing to compromise.
  • Be responsible and respectful; arrive punctually, dress neatly and don't interrupt.
  • Remember your time is limited; make points succinctly and focus on crucial topics.
  • Keep your kids' interests and needs at the forefront of the discussion, rather than your own.
  • Don't raise your voice or get angry.
  • Try not to speak negatively about the other parent.
  • Keep an open mind.
  • Be honest.
  • Take notes so you remember what was said.
  • Don't feel pressured into agreeing to anything you will regret.
  • Be forthcoming with any questions you have.
  • Read up on how to negotiate effectively.

How it compares to private mediation

While closely related, court-ordered custody mediation and private mediation have important differences. Private mediation is like a more comprehensive version of court-ordered mediation that you pay for.

Private mediation results in parenting agreements much more often than court-ordered mediation. A common estimate is that about 90 percent of families in private custody mediation reach agreement, compared to about 20 percent in court-ordered mediation.

One reason for the disparity is that private mediation is optional; both parents must agree to attend, and thus are likely to feel committed to the process. Another factor giving private mediation a higher settlement rate is the cost; when parents have invested financially in the process, they are generally more committed to making it work. Private mediation is also open-ended, and parents can take as much time as they need to work out their disagreements.

Similar to a non-recommending court mediator, a private mediator will not share information with the court ― or anyone else ― regarding your negotiations, apart from the final agreement. The exception to confidentiality, with any type of mediation, is a revelation of child abuse; this must always be reported to authorities.

Tools for mediation

If mediation goes well, you could walk out with a parenting plan that will last until your child becomes an adult. Are you ready?

Use all the tools at your disposal to get the best outcome for your child. Bring a parenting plan to present to the other parent. Bring multiple custody schedules to suggest, as well. You might also bring a calendar showing when you care for your child, a log of interactions with the child or other parent, a list of child-related expenses you pay and more.

The Custody X Change app enables you to create all these items in one place. Custody X Change makes sure you're prepared not only for mediation, but for every step of your custody case.

Custody X Change is software that creates parenting plans and schedules to help you prepare for mediation.

Make My Plan Now

Custody X Change is software that creates parenting plans and schedules to help you prepare for mediation.

Make My Plan

Custody X Change is software that creates parenting plans and schedules to help you prepare for mediation.

Make My Plan Now

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