Child Custody Mediation in Virginia

The majority of custody cases aren't decided by a judge in a trial, but by parents themselves in a settlement — often with the assistance of a mediator.

Mediators are neutral experts in family dispute resolution and child custody. They're often lawyers, but they don't represent either parent or offer legal advice. Instead, they help parents collaborate to create the best parenting time schedule, parenting plan and child support arrangement for the kids.

To encourage settlement, many courts refer parents who don't see eye to eye to mediation or another alternative dispute resolution method (unless someone in the case has a protective order).

Ideally, mediation results in an agreement that addresses everything in the case. When parents only agree on some things, they submit a partial settlement, and a judge decides the remaining issues in a trial.

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When to use mediation

Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court (J&DR) usually refers custody cases to a mediation orientation before or after the initial hearing. Then, if both parents agree to participate, they work with a court mediator for free. Alternatively, parents can opt to pay for a private mediator, even before they have a mediation referral.

Circuit Court (divorce court) doesn't require mediation, but parents can hire a private mediator instead of attending the judicial settlement conference often scheduled before trial.

Parents planning to file for no-fault divorce frequently work with a private mediator during their one-year separation period. The mediator helps them create a separation agreement, which parents may commit to file with the court later to start an uncontested case.

Benefits of mediation

  • Control: Parents maintain control of the outcome rather than ceding it to the court.
  • Consensus: Parents are more likely to follow custody orders they've agreed to.
  • Effectiveness: Parenting plans and time schedules often meet children's needs better when parents create them.
  • Dispute resolution guidance: Mediators facilitate communication and help resolve disputes, which can improve co-parenting.
  • Privacy: Parents work out their issues privately instead of in a public courtroom.
  • Confidentiality: What's said in mediation can't be used in court or in investigations (unless child abuse is suspected).
  • Speed: It can take up to a year for a trial to begin — settling with a mediated agreement is much faster.
  • Savings: Mediation from J&DR Court is free, and hiring a private mediator is typically much less expensive than hiring a lawyer for a trial.

Hiring a private mediator, though not cheap, has additional benefits:

  • Choice: Parents can choose a mediator they both like.
  • Focus: Some private mediators have expertise in LGBTQ custody, complicated finances, children with special needs, etc. Others specialize in religious approaches.
  • Scheduling flexibility: Private mediators schedule sessions sooner than court-provided mediators, and many offer evening and weekend sessions.

Private mediators typically charge between $250 and $500 per hour. The mediator helps parents decide how to share the cost.

What to expect in mediation sessions

Whatever path you take to mediation, you meet with the other parent and the mediator for at least one approximately-three-hour session.

The mediator begins by explaining the process and conduct guidelines, and both parents sign the Agreement to Mediate.

Each parent shares their concerns and goals. Then, the mediator often meets with each parent individually in what's called a caucus — they can only share what's said in a caucus if the parent allows it.

The mediator facilitates communication, suggests solutions and helps parents see things from each other's perspective.

When parents agree, the mediator creates the settlement paperwork that the plaintiff is responsible for submitting to the court. If parents don't reach a complete agreement in the first session, they decide whether to schedule another to keep trying.

Who attends mediation sessions

In addition to parents and the mediator, other individuals may attend mediation.

If parents have lawyers, the mediator may allow them to observe but not participate. To prevent a power imbalance, most mediators only allow this if both parents have lawyers in attendance.

If a guardian ad litem is appointed, they might attend and participate.

Other people, such as a religious adviser, may also attend and participate if both parents and the mediator agree.

Children can't attend under any circumstances.

Tips for successful mediation


  • Prepare for mediation, and read up on negotiating effectively.
  • Bring all the forms and information required by your mediator.
  • Prepare notes for what you want to say.
  • Consider the other parent's perspective, and anticipate their requests.
  • Keep an open mind, and trust the process.
  • Take notes during the session.
  • Stay on topic when speaking.
  • Focus on your children's best interests.


  • Argue to win or treat the process as a trial.
  • Interrupt anyone.
  • Rehash old disagreements.
  • Raise your voice or get angry.
  • Speak negatively about the other parent.
  • Lie or provide misleading information.
  • Bring your children to the session.

Tools for mediation

If mediation goes well, you could walk out with a parenting plan that will last until your children become adults. Are you ready?

Bring a parenting plan and multiple parenting time schedules to suggest. You might also bring a list of child-related expenses or entries from a parenting journal.

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

Custody X Change makes sure you're prepared not only for mediation but for every step of your custody case.

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