6 Courtroom Alternatives: Ohio Child Custody Options

Often, when people think of a child custody dispute, their minds go straight to a courtroom complete with lawyers and a judge. While traditional litigation is one way to decide custody, other options are growing in popularity. See if one of the following alternatives might work for you.

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Early neutral evaluation

Some Ohio county courts use early neutral evaluation to encourage parents to settle their case based on input from an evaluator. The evaluator — who may be a social worker, magistrate or mediator — looks at each parent's case to determine how a judicial officer would likely rule.

Parents can choose to undergo an evaluation, or the court can order it.

Benefits of early neutral evaluation include:

  • Time efficiency: The process can consist of just one session, and never more than a few.
  • Cost savings: ENE can cost as little as $200 per session, potentially saving parents thousands in attorney fees.
  • Confidentiality: Sessions take place in a private room, and evaluators don't participate in other aspects of the case.
  • Foresight: Parents get an idea of what to expect from the court so they can take the best course of action for their family.

First, each parent submits a case summary and a statement of what they're seeking. Then, the parents (or their lawyers, if applicable) further explain their stances in person. The evaluator makes a hypothetical decision and helps parents discuss settlement.

If the parties settle, they submit their agreement to the court for approval. If they don't settle, the evaluator can refer them to mediation or they can proceed to trial.


A mediator is a neutral party who helps parents resolve some or all of the issues in their case. Mediation is best for parties who have common ground and can interact civilly.

A judicial officer may order parents to mediation, or parents may attend voluntarily. If they only resolve some issues in mediation, they can litigate the others.

Benefits of mediation include:

  • Privacy: Parents can hash out their issues in private instead of a public courtroom.
  • Flexibility: Parents don't have to schedule around the court's timetable.
  • Family consensus: Families are more likely to follow a parenting plan they developed than one developed by the court.
  • Control: Parents maintain control of the process and outcome instead of ceding control to a judicial officer.
  • Cost savings: Parents decide how to split the cost, and they often owe hundreds of dollars each, as opposed to many thousands for trial.

To start, the mediator helps parents establish ground rules, such as communicating respectfully. Then parents discuss their differences, as the mediator helps them find areas where they can agree or compromise. The mediator may suggest they test different parenting arrangements to find which works best.

Generally, each mediation session lasts no more than two hours. Two or three sessions are often enough to resolve a custody case. Divorces may need five or more sessions, since they involve additional issues.

The cost of mediation ranges from $200 to $500 an hour. Parents can agree to split the cost any way, perhaps paying equally or in proportion to their incomes. They pay a retainer fee up front, based on the number of hours they want to reserve. Alternatively, some county courts offer free mediation programs.

If necessary, you can return to mediation later to modify your parenting plan.

Collaborative law

Collaborative law brings parents, their lawyers and other professionals together in a team environment similar to that of mediation. The structured setting works well for parents who have significant trouble communicating.

Each parent is represented by a collaboratively-trained attorney, and experts on topics like mental health and personal finance provide input to both parents.

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

  • Legal representation: Each parent has an attorney present to look out for their interests.
  • Expert input: Professionals give specialized input that can help parents reach a fair agreement.
  • Cost savings: Parents usually save thousands of dollars by avoiding trial (although they usually pay more than they would with mediation).

Before the process begins, everyone involved signs an agreement saying they'll communicate respectfully and honestly, without withholding information. In addition, the parents agree to hire new lawyers if they leave collaboration for litigation, in order to protect the confidentiality of the process.

Each parent meets with their attorney before the first group session to work out strategies and goals for negotiations.

During sessions, the group discusses items of contention one by one, working toward a parenting plan that's satisfactory to both parents. Generally, this takes three to six sessions. Parents then submit the plan to the court as a settlement agreement.

Collaborative lawyers charge hourly rates comparable to other family lawyers, anywhere from $150 to $500 per hour. Parents pay a retainer fee up front, based on how many hours of service they want to reserve. The overall cost of collaboration, including the cost of the specialists, is generally less than litigating because of the process' speed.

In the future, parents can modify the parenting plan with their collaborative team, if necessary.

Private judging

In Ohio, you can hire a retired judge who's registered to issue rulings in custody, divorce and dissolution cases. These private judges act in the same capacity as county judges, hearing your case and making a determination based on evidence.

Benefits of private judging include:

  • Speed: You'll have less time between hearings because private judges have fewer cases.
  • Efficiency: Matters can often be resolved in a single hearing.
  • Privacy: Hearings are held in offices or meeting spaces instead of courtrooms.
  • Comfort: You can state your case in a more relaxed environment.
  • Scheduling reliability: Your hearing and trial dates are not likely to move like they could with a traditional judge.

After opening a case, parents ask their county court for a private judging referral together. They may ask to have their entire case heard or just specific issues.

Next, they choose a private judge together and sign an agreement, outlined in Chapter 2701.10 of the Ohio Revised Code, granting the private judge authority over their case. The county judge initially assigned to the case must approve the agreement.

From that point until a decision is issued, the private judge has the same authority as an active county court judge. You may not change judges unless problems like bias or conflict of interest arise.

Private judging costs $150 or more per hour. Parents must specify how they'll split this cost in their written agreement.

Remember that a private judge is no less serious or more lenient than a traditional judge, so make sure to prepare for court accordingly.

Parent coordination

Parent coordinators (PCs) help resolve disputes between parents to spare children from conflict. They help parents brainstorm solutions to disagreements, and — in some instances — they make the final decision if parents can't agree.

PCs usually work with parents who are navigating an existing court order or negotiating changes to a parenting plan. Judges may appoint one when parents return to court frequently, or parents may choose to hire one.

The court order or private contract instating the PC specifies decisions they can assist with (e.g., child discipline), plus any decisions they can make themselves when parents reach a stalemate (e.g., parenting time). It also states how long the professional relationship will last.

Benefits of parent coordination include:

  • Speed: Issues are resolved more quickly in coordination than in court, sometimes taking hours instead of months.
  • Proactivity: The PC addresses arising issues before they become major problems.
  • Reduced conflict: The PC serves as the voice of reason who refocuses attention on the children's needs.

While meetings with the PC generally take place in an office, some PCs communicate remotely through email, video conferencing, phone calls and texting.

A coordinator can cost $200 to $500 per hour. Parents usually split the cost evenly, unless a judicial officer awards a different split or parents have their own agreement. They pay a retainer fee up front based on how many hours of service they want to reserve.

Informal negotiation

If parents are able to negotiate calmly, they may be able to draft a parenting plan and parenting time schedule without the help of a neutral professional, either on their own or with lawyers present.

If you don't have an attorney, you should at least have a legal professional review your settlement documents to ensure there aren't any errors that could stall proceedings or cause problems down the road. Additionally, the Custody X Change app, self-help websites and resources from your local court will help with the process, which can be complex.

Tips for negotiating

  • Be respectful to the other parent and everyone involved.
  • Avoid using destructive language.
  • Use "I" instead of "you" statements.
  • Really listen to the other parent's concerns.
  • Keep an open mind, and test options presented.
  • Speak up if you have questions or concerns.

Preparing for alternative dispute resolution

Preparation is as important when you decide custody through an alternative method as when you decide it in a courtroom.

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

A proposed parenting plan with a parenting time 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 parenting calendars, parent-to-parent messaging, a parenting journal and an expense tracker, Custody X Change prepares you for any method of deciding custody in Ohio.

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

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