5 Courtroom Alternatives: Georgia Child Custody Options

When parents need help reaching a custody agreement, many turn to an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) method. Various types of ADR exist, and each supports parents as they work to settle a case and avoid trial.

See if any of the ADR options below could work for you, either to get a custody order or modify a custody order.

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A mediator is a neutral party who helps parents resolve issues in a case.

Mediation can work well for low- and high-conflict cases, as parents usually meet with the mediator separately. You can also opt to meet all together.

Benefits of mediation include:

  • Family consensus: When parents can agree, the family dynamic often improves.
  • Autonomy: Parents are more likely to follow a plan they create themselves than one the court creates.
  • Focus: Mediators help parents set aside personal issues and prioritize the children.
  • Flexible scheduling: Mediators plan sessions around parents' calendars.
  • Speed: Parents often resolve their issues within a few sessions.
  • Savings: Each parent can save thousands of dollars by avoiding trial.
  • Confidentiality: Mediation proceedings are off the record, and mediators cannot testify in court.

Parents can attend mediation before opening a case or they can pause litigation to attend. If they go to court without having given mediation a try, the judge often orders them to participate in at least one session. (Cases involving domestic violence may be exempted.)

Many courts have their own mediators, whom judges can assign to active cases. If parents use a private mediator, they either agree which one to hire or ask the court to choose for them.

Sessions take place in a mediator's office, attorney's office or a courthouse.

Parents communicate what they want through proposed parenting plans. Then, in each session, the mediator talks with the parents about potential compromises. If parents manage to agree, the mediator writes up the details for them to submit to court in a settlement. They can take any remaining issues to trial.

Mediating through your court costs $150 per party, per day. Private mediation generally costs more, and parents decide how to split the price through their negotiations.

Collaborative law

Collaborative law brings parents, their lawyers and other professionals together in a team environment. The structured setting works well for parents who have severe trouble communicating.

Each parent must hire a collaboratively-trained attorney. Together, the parents can also hire mental health professionals, child specialists and others to provide support in negotiations. They can meet with the collaborative team together or separately.

Benefits of collaborative law include those of mediation (above), plus:

  • Legal representation: Each parent has an attorney to look out for their interests.
  • Expert input: The professionals brought in give specialized, unbiased advice so the family can create the best possible parenting plan.

To begin, everyone signs an agreement to participate honestly. Each parent meets with their attorney to prepare.

During sessions, parents exchange information (e.g., work schedules, financial documents) and discuss potential arrangements with the team. When parents reach an agreement, the lawyers draft a settlement, then submit it to court so it can become a final custody order.

The length of the collaborative process varies. Some cases take only a few two-hour sessions, while others require several months to resolve.

Collaborative law is more expensive than mediation, since multiple people — the lawyers and other team members — need payment. Parents decide how to split the costs as part of the collaborative process.

Parenting coordination

A parenting coordinator (PC) is a neutral professional who helps parents create a parenting plan or settle small disputes related to an active custody order.

If both parents give permission, the PC can make decisions for them when they reach a standstill (but not about child support).

Benefits of parenting coordination include those of mediation (above), plus:

  • Availability: Parents can communicate with the PC outside of formal sessions.
  • Consistency: Parents have an ongoing relationship with the PC and turn to them as often as necessary.
  • Education: The PC teaches parents how to communicate with each other effectively.

Parents choose a PC together or have the court select one. They meet with the PC whenever they have a significant disagreement over the children, which could range from choosing an extracurricular activity to deciding legal and physical custody.

Many parenting plans state that parents must try coordination before returning to court. Your judge may not approve your plan without a stipulation like this, especially if they foresee numerous disputes in your co-parenting relationship.

Parenting coordinators charge hourly rates comparable to lawyers. They may charge extra for services like electronic communication between sessions.

Judicially-hosted settlement conferences

Some counties offer judicially-hosted settlement conferences (JHSCs), where a judge who is not already assigned to the case evaluates each party's argument.

After sharing thoughts on how a trial would likely end, the judge leads the parents in a discussion of settlement options.

Benefits of these conferences include:

  • Privacy: JHSCs take place in a private conference room, and conversations do not go on the court record.
  • Space: Each parent meets separately with the judge at the start, giving them the chance to state their case without objections.
  • Savings: Each parent pays a flat fee, usually around $300.
  • Foresight: Parents get an idea of what to expect from the court so they can take the best course of action for their family.

Parents can request a JHSC, or the court can order one without request.

If the parties do not settle, their case proceeds through the litigation process with a different judge.

Late case evaluation

When a case has gone on for months with no sign of settlement, parents may turn to a late case evaluation.

The process and benefits are similar to those of judicially-hosted settlement conferences (above). Late case evaluations differ in that an attorney or retired judge oversees proceedings (as case evaluator) instead of an active judge. The evaluator cannot have a previous connection to the case.

Parents can motion for a late case evaluation during or after discovery. Sometimes, the court orders parents to attend without a motion.

Courts keep a list of evaluators. If parents can't agree who to hire from the list, the court chooses for them.

Fees vary based on the evaluator's experience. Attorneys typically charge their normal hourly rate, but the court can also order a different amount.

Tips for alternative dispute resolution negotiations

  • Prioritize your children's needs and wants over your own.
  • Treat the other parent as a teammate rather than a competitor.
  • Avoid disparaging the other parent.
  • Be honest.
  • Keep an open mind, and be willing to compromise.
  • Voice any concerns your have.
  • Think of the negotiation as a tool to foster a co-parenting relationship.

Preparing for alternative dispute resolution

Preparation is as important when you decide custody through an alternative method as when you decide it through trial.

You'll still be trying to convince someone — the other parent, a parenting coordinator, a judge or a case evaluator.

A proposed parenting plan with a custody schedule presents your argument persuasively. You may also want to present messages exchanged with the other parent, a log of important interactions with the other parent, your child's expenses, and more.

The Custody X Change online app lets you create all of this in one place.

With a parenting plan template, customizable custody calendars, parent-to-parent messaging, a parenting journal and an expense tracker, Custody X Change prepares you for any method of deciding custody in Georgia.

It empowers you to get what's best for your child.

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