In Pennsylvania child custody cases, the parties are generally required to attend a mediation session prior to obtaining a hearing before a common pleas judge. If you have been ordered to attend custody mediation, you likely have questions about its purpose and what to expect. Many of my clients have these same questions, so I thought it would be helpful to put together a list of common “FAQ’s” for parties preparing for child custody mediation. Remember, situations vary widely, and for specific questions about your case, you should contact an attorney.
Why do I have to attend mediation?
Pennsylvania law requires parties to attend child custody mediation with the hopes that they can work out a custody agreement between themselves rather than proceeding to a full custody hearing.
Do I have to agree to a custody order at mediation?
Absolutely not. Sometimes it is in the best interest of your child to reach an agreement at mediation, and sometimes it is better to proceed to a custody hearing. This depends on the facts of your case and the position of the other party. The mediator may encourage you to enter into an agreement, and that is her/his job, but the mediator cannot force you to agree to anything. You always have the right to move forward with a hearing if the agreement being offered is unacceptable to you.
What are the benefits of reaching an agreement at mediation?
One big benefit is risk management. If you choose to proceed to a custody hearing before a judge, you are taking the decision making out of your hands and placing it with the judge. The judge could (and likely will) enter an order that neither party is happy with. By agreeing to a custody order at mediation, you can maintain some control over all aspects of the custody order, including the custody schedule, who has primary custody, who has legal custody, etc. etc.
Another benefit of reaching an agreement at mediation is cost management. A custody hearing often requires the services of an attorney to properly present your case. Custody hearings can last a few hours or multiple days. An attorney will have to bill you for this time, plus time spent preparing for the hearing. It can be very expensive.
How should I prepare for mediation?
Some counties require the parties to fill out a “mediation questionnaire” which will force you to think through many of the important issues related to your child custody case. Even if your county does not require this, it is very helpful if you sit down and think about (a) the custody timeline – who has had custody of the child since their birth, where, and for how long; (b) a proposed schedule of custody – what would meet your goals and work best for the child; (c) the factors that make your home a better/safer place for the child to spend the majority of his/her time in comparison with the opposing party.
These documents are not necessarily something you would provide to the mediator (unless he/she asks), but they would help guide you or your attorney through the mediation process.
How should I act at mediation?
This is a biggie. You should conduct yourself professionally at all times. You want to show the mediator that you are reasonable and flexible. Keep in mind that the mediator is required to write a report of what happened at mediation and provide it to the judge. You should acknowledge the other parent’s strengths. Most of all you need to convey that your main concern is what is in the best interest of the child.
Finally, you should not bring outside issues into the mediation. It is only about custody – not property settlement, child support, or personal issues that don’t directly affect the child’s well being.
If you are scheduled for a child custody mediation, these tips should help you out. Remember, it is almost always best to have an attorney represent you. If you would like to discuss this or any other family law issue you are facing, please feel free to contact me for a consultation.