3 Courtroom Alternatives: Pennsylvania Custody Options

Often, when people think of a child custody dispute, their minds go straight to a trial.

While the litigation process is one way to decide custody, other options are growing in popularity. See if one of the following methods could help you make a parenting plan or modify your existing plan.

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Mediators help parents talk through their disagreements and reach compromises. Mediation offers parents the autonomy to create a parenting plan that suits their family, while also saving them time and money compared to fighting in court.

Pennsylvania courts can require parents who haven't reached a settlement to attend a mediation orientation. After the 30-minute orientation, parents decide whether to participate in county court mediation.

Parents can also choose to attend private mediation at any point before or after opening a case. If they do so, they may be excused from the orientation requirement.

Parents are never required to settle in mediation. If they do reach a full agreement, it becomes a final order with the judge's approval. If they can only agree on certain issues, those terms are incorporated into their final order, issued following trial.

Sessions are off the record. Mediators cannot testify at trial, and parents cannot use information discovered through mediation to litigate.

County court mediation

Most county courts offer mediation. Cases that have active Protection from Abuse Orders or have had domestic violence incidents within the past 24 months cannot participate.

Parents cannot discuss child support or any noncustody issues in court mediation sessions.

Some counties, like Chester and Montgomery, automatically assign a mediator to every custody case. Elsewhere, parents get the chance to choose a court-approved mediator together, but the court chooses one if they can't agree.

Both parents must consent before lawyers or anyone else can attend.

The fee — which ranges from $50 to $300 per party, per hour — must be paid upfront. Parents who can't afford it may apply for a fee waiver. Each meeting can last up to two hours.

At the end of the first meeting, the mediator writes a brief report for the court listing agreements, outstanding issues and whether the parents want to continue negotiating. Cases that settle typically only need one session.

If the court allows more sessions, the parents' conciliation conference gets pushed back. They must pay the mediator's regular hourly rate for the extra sessions, and they may choose a different mediator from the court's roster, if they wish.

Private mediation

Parents may hire a mediator through a private practice. This typically costs $150 to $500 per party, per hour. Since this option attracts parents with more complicated disputes, custody cases tend to resolve in two or three sessions, while divorces can take three or more.

Parents with a violent relationship may attend sessions separately or via phone or video conferencing. After the first meeting, the child and other people may attend if both parents agree it would be helpful.

In private mediation, you may discuss child support and anything related to custody.

Collaborative law

Collaborative law most benefits parents who have large income disparities or significant trouble communicating calmly. It provides the privacy and autonomy of mediation, with the added expertise of a "collaborative team" of lawyers and professionals.

Each parent must hire their own collaborative lawyer. Together they hire the other team members, who may include financial advisers and child experts.

To begin, each team member — including parents and their lawyers — signs an agreement to communicate honestly and stay out of court. Parents can end the process at any time, but cannot keep their lawyer if they later litigate.

The first meeting is typically a short one for setting ground rules.

After that, the team spends each two-hour session proposing solutions to disagreements until the parents reach a deal in the best interests of the child. Cases generally resolve in three to five meetings.

Lawyers write up the agreement, and it becomes a legally-binding contract with the parents' signatures. Parents have the option to file it with the court as a settlement, which is highly recommended. Filing ensures consequences for disobeying the terms, once a judge signs off.

Collaborative lawyers charge hourly rates comparable to litigating lawyers, but parents generally save money with collaboration because it concludes relatively quickly. The other professionals involved charge less than lawyers, and parents split those fees.

Parenting coordination

Parenting coordinators (PCs) are lawyers or mental health professionals trained in mediation and responding to domestic violence. They help parents with existing court orders resolve disagreements to avoid returning to court. If the parents reach a deadlock, the PC can make certain decisions for them.

In Pennsylvania, parents cannot hire PCs privately. Instead, the court appoints a PC as part of the final custody order for parents with especially high conflict.

Coordinators can work on cases involving domestic violence or protective orders, as long as the parties consent. They must take measures to protect the victim, such as meeting with parents separately.

Parents can let the court choose a provider or agree on one from their county's directory, like the directories below:

The PC's contract lasts one year, but the court can extend it. During the contract, parents communicate with the PC in person, by phone or through email as disagreements arise. The coordinator can guide discussions on any parenting topic, but cannot alter physical or legal custody or make decisions about finances, health or religion.

The PC may provide the court with a summary of each session, including agreements reached and their recommendations for modifying court orders. The court may adopt some or all of the PC's recommendations or schedule a hearing on the issues. If a parent disagrees with modifications, they can file an objection.

The cost of a coordinator hovers around $300 per hour, which parents generally split. If parents' combined monthly income exceeds $30,000, the court may increase the rate.

Preparing for alternative dispute resolution methods

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

You still want to present convincing information — but to the other parent or a parenting coordinator rather than to the court.

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 Pennsylvania.

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

Visualize your schedule. Get a written parenting plan. Calculate your parenting time.

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