Parenting Plan Mediation gives parents, who are separated or divorced, the opportunity to make the decisions about the legal and physical rights and responsibilities of providing their children’s care, instead of allowing a judge to make these decisions for them.* California law requires separating or divorcing parents, who have a dispute pending before the court about their children’s care [“custody” and/or “visitation”], to attempt in to resolve their dispute before a judge makes a “permanent” order.** Litigation gives a judge the power to decide the parenting arrangement. The law also specifies that children have the right to have “close and continuing contact” with each parent after a separation and that the arrangements for their children’s care must be based on what is in the children’s best interests. Who knows more about children’s best interests than the two people who love the children most? Parenting Plan Mediation gives parents the chance to discuss the arrangements they believe would be best for their children and to craft a plan that works for each family member and is developmentally appropriate for the children, rather than leave these important decisions to a “stranger in a black robe.”
Depending on the wishes and needs of the parents and their children, such a plan may be very specific (for example, including the days and times of parental care transfers during weekdays, weekends, holidays, vacations, etc.) or simply may be general guidelines. The better the parents are able to communicate and cooperate with each other, the less specific a parenting plan needs to be. On the other hand, even some separated parents who get along relatively well and some children prefer a more specific plan that makes planning easier. Parents also may want to include in their parenting plan rules for parental behavior with regard to their children. For example, if there are safety concerns, parents may want to transfer the children’s care in a way that reduces the likelihood the children will be exposed to parental conflict.
Ultimately, for an agreed-upon parenting plan to become be a legally binding document, it must be signed by a judge and filed with the court as a “Stipulation and Order.” Without parental agreement, a judge will impose a parenting plan as an order if either parent has filed a motion asking the court to do so (a “Request for Custody/Visitation”). Parents can file their Stipulation and Order on their own, with the help of their mediator, and/or through an attorney. (It is rare that a judge will refuse to sign such a parental agreement.) Mediation makes it much more likely than litigation that a parenting plan will be a good fit for the family. Additionally, mediated agreements tend to hold up better over time and result in fewer parental conflicts than orders imposed by a judge. Finally, mediation is usually a much more cost-effective way to resolve disputes than litigation, particularly when one or both parents are represented by attorneys.
Please be aware that I offer only confidentialmediation. Although I may make various suggestions during the process, I will not make recommendations to the court. Under California law, a confidential mediator cannot testify in any civil proceeding about what occurs at or in conjunction with a mediation. Also, I will not discuss you or your case with anyone else unless both parents have explicitly authorized me to do so or as required or permitted by law.
If you reach an agreement and want me to prepare it as a Memorandum of Understanding, I will do so at my usual fee rate. A Memorandum of Understanding can become a court order only if submitted to the court and filed by you or your attorney, if you have one. If neither parent has an attorney, I will explain the process of having your agreement become a court order. If you appear to be agreeing on an arrangement I do not believe would serve your child or children’s best interests or otherwise would be unworkable, I will tell you this and explain my reasoning. Either parent may give me reasonable written information as long as that parent has provided the same information to the other parent. Also, I might ask or either parent may ask me to contact one or more collateral sources to gain a fuller understanding of your situation. I would contact such sources, however, only if both parents have signed an Authorization to Release/Exchange Confidential Information. For similar reasons, I will not discuss your case with either parent alone unless both parents have agreed explicitly for me to do so. If you do not reach agreement on all significant matters related to your children’s care, I may tell you, if both parents request, what I think it likely the court might order. Please be aware, however, that anything I suggest a court might order would be strictly my opinion, based on the information you have provided and my time working in the Family Court system. Having worked for the court for many years, I have learned that, although judges strive to be impartial and consistent in their rulings, a particular judge may be new to family law or may have had a great deal of experience with family law. Judges were trained as attorneys and may or may not have had significant training in family dynamics, child development, or other mental health topics. Additionally, each judge brings her or his unique life experience to the job. Consequently, it is extremely difficult to predict with certainty what any particular judge will order in any particular case. Therefore and with few exceptions, it is significantly better for children when their parents make the decisions about the arrangements for their care of separation or divorce.
*If there are concerns about domestic violence, substance abuse, or any other problem that creates safety concerns, these must be addressed appropriately before mediation can be effective. It will not be possible for parents to work with each other cooperatively if either is afraid the other parent will become violent or if either parent is impaired. A parent alleging to have been the victim of domestic violence by the other parent may prefer to meet with the mediator separately at separate times from the other parent if the alleging parent is too frightened or otherwise does not feel capable of representing the children’s and her or his interests in the physical presence of the other parent. A parent with concerns about domestic violence should discuss such concerns with me prior to the onset of mediation.
**While the court might use the term “permanent” to describe an order, it is important to know that any family law order may be modified by further parental agreement or future court order. If parents want any agreement to have the enforceability of a court order, the agreement must be submitted to the court in the form of a Stipulation and Order, which is available from a paralegal, attorney, some stationary stores, directly from the court, or from the California Court’s website: http://www.courts.ca.gov/documents/fl355.pdf. A wide variety of other forms and useful information can be found on the Contra Costa County Superior Court’s website: http://www.cc-courts.org/. A wide variety of other forms and useful information can be found on the Contra Costa County Superior Court’s website: http://www.cc-courts.org/.