Congratulations! You’ve already decided to go through the process of mediation, so soon you will realize a number of key benefits of using this process instead of dragging your family through a years’ long court battle. This sensible decision allows you and the other parent to come to an agreement about how you will raise your children together, separately. The great thing about this option is that you and your spouse can generally reach any decision that works for the best interests of your family as long as it is legal and in line with the rules of your jurisdiction.
A Quick Note on the Mediation Process
Mediation is an alternative to litigating a case, which is the court battle. The parents work together to develop a comprehensive agreement that is customized to their particular situation. A mediator helps them through this process and facilitates peaceful communication between the parents. He or she reminds the parties that they are there to work together and focus on the mutual goal of protecting the child’s best interests.
Benefits of Mediation
Mediating child custody disputes provides many benefits to the family, including:
- Cost savings
- Able to avoid conflict that arises after parties cement their positions during protracted litigation
- Private and confidential
- Predictable outcomes
- Direct control over the outcome
- More peaceful and harmonious
- Focused on the individual needs of the children and family
- More equitable outcomes that are mutually beneficial and fair to both parties
- Less biased than litigated cases
- Provides a foundation for how to resolve any issues that arise after the agreement is entered into
These are just a few of the benefits that mediation offers. Mediators in your area can describe further benefits that you may receive from participating fully and in good faith with the mediation process.
Role of the Mediator
It is important to remember that the mediator does not have decision-making authority; he’s not a judge or arbitrator. The mediator is a neutral person who is not biased in favor of either parent. The family harmony and the ability to avoid dramatic litigation are the objectives the mediator keeps in mind during the mediation process. The mediator helps identify the legal issues involved and provides general information to help guide the parties toward a peaceful resolution. The mediator knows that every family is unique, but he or she can suggest options that were helpful to other families. The mediator can also help the parties brainstorm ideas to help resolve issues that arise. Mediators help the parents reach mutually agreeable solutions that are fair to both parents. They also acknowledge that both parents want to have an active and meaningful role in their children’s lives and support this idea.
Parenting Plan Provisions
Now that you know what mediation is and how the process will benefit you, it’s important to consider the type of information you want to include in your specific parenting plan. A parenting plan is the agreement you reach with the other parent about how you will raise your children. It should detail how much time children will spend with each parents and other important details about your child and the responsibilities of each parent. Having a written plan will help all family members understand the expectations and avoid confusion.
The structure of a parenting plan may vary by jurisdiction, but family law courts generally accept that agreements the parties reach together should be supported and are more likely to be followed, so you often have a high degree of flexibility regarding the terms you put in it. This document may be changed over time, so it should be an adaptable document.
The foundation of a parenting plan is describing the time that the child will spend with each parent. This section may provide custody labels, such as “custodial parent” or “primary residential parent,” but more jurisdictions are getting away from this way of looking at things and preferring more family-friendly terms like “mom” and “dad.”
The parenting time may be described in percentages, such as the first parent having the child 60% of the time and the second parent having the child 40% of the time. Other plans might simply state that both parents should have ample time with the child. However, the parenting plan should provide specific details about when the child will be with both parents. For example, it might state:
- The child will primarily live with dad. He will live there during the school week. Mom will have an afternoon visit with the child on Wednesday from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. The child will spend all weekends with mom except for the final weekend of the month. Mom will pick up the child at 5 p.m. on Friday and return the child at 5 p.m. on Sunday during her visits.
The greater specificity, the less likely it is that there will be confusion. Some of the specific information that may be included in this section of the parenting plan includes:
- Overnight stays
- Routine time arrangements
- Midweek visits
- Extended visits
- Summer scheduling
- Holiday time
Parents need to consider their children’s school schedules, the time between their residences and the developmental needs of their children when developing this portion of the plan. Some parenting plans may include a schedule that automatically adjusts once the child reaches a certain age or developmental milestone.
Other Family Time
The parenting plan may also address time with other people, such as extended family. It may also discuss how extended relatives will have vacation time or holiday time with the children.
The parenting plan may include information about the child’s education. Some details may include:
- Where the child will attend school
- How the parents will support the child’s education
- Parental responsibilities related to homework and monitoring academic progress
- How tutoring or special educational classes will be paid for
- How the parents will fund post-secondary educational expenses, such as college or vocational school
- How changes regarding school will be made
- How parents will access or share information about school
- Which parent or parents will attend parent-teacher conferences and other school events
There may be other provisions that the parents agree on and include in the parenting plan related to the child’s education.
The parenting plan can also state who the childcare provider will be for the child when the primary parent is working or otherwise unable to care for the child. It could state how this decision will be reached. Some parenting plans contain a provision that gives the other parent the automatic right to watch the children first if the parent needs childcare.
The parenting plan may also include information about the religion that the child will be brought up in, special dietary restrictions or important religious practices the child will observe. It may also provide details about which parent will be responsible for taking the child to religious services and events.
The parents can also state what extracurricular activities the child will participate in and how decisions related to these activities will be made. For example, it may state that the child will participate in one sport and fine arts activity during the fall and one sport and fine arts activity in the spring. It may state that the child will be able to determine one of the activities. It may also include information on how these activities will be paid for and how equipment will be transferred or shared between the parents.
A cornerstone of a strong co-parenting relationship is good communication. The parenting plan may establish guidelines for communication, including the following:
- Information to be shared between the parents – This may include a list of information, such as the child’s educational and medical information. It may also include contact information for anyone that the child will be around or travel details.
- Method of communication – The parents may agree to use a notebook that the child carries to share information, email, an app, a shared calendar or other form to communicate important information about the child.
- Frequency of communication
- How the parties will communicate in case of emergency
- When a change to the parenting plan needs to be in writing
The parenting plan should plan for contingencies in case things do not go as planned. For example, it can contain information about what to do in case a parent has a work emergency, a child’s need changes, illness, emergency situations or an unexpected event.
The parenting plan should also provide clear information on how decisions for the child will be made. Each parent will probably have the right to make simple decisions that come up while caring for the child, such as what to feed the child or how to spend time. However, the parenting plan may state that the parents will make important decisions about the child together. One parent may have the final say.
The parents may choose to make the parenting plan valid for a certain amount of time and then review it to make any needed changes. It may include instructions on when the parents need to put changes in writing or seek court modification.
Resolving Parental Disputes
The parenting plan may provide instructions on what parents should do if they encounter a dispute. It may explain that the mediation process should be used to resolve these disputes in an amicable fashion.
A mediator can help parents develop a comprehensive plan that clearly lays out their agreement.
Valerie Keene is an experienced lawyer and legal writer, editor and content manager. She has provided educational legal content for over a decade, focusing on various practice areas, including family law and estate planning. Her litigation successes have included wins for cases involving contract disputes, real property disputes, divorce, guardianship and consumer issues. She has worked on cases involving child custody disputes, divorce, domestic violence and incapacitated adults, providing clients with solid legal advice and representation.