California requires child-centered custodial mediation with Family Court Services for all cases in which the parties do not agree on a custodial plan for their own children.
What is mediation with Family Court Services?
Family Court Services (FCS) provides mediation to help parents resolve disagreements about the care of their child. The mediator will meet with you and the other parent to try to help the two of you agree to a parenting plan. Your local courthouse may provide an orientation that offers additional information about the process; if so, you should make it a point to attend that orientation.
If you are concerned about meeting with the other parent in mediation, or if there is a domestic violence issue or a protective order involving the other parent, you may ask to meet alone with the mediator without the other parent. Depending on the facts of your case, this request may or may not be granted.
Must you agree to a parenting plan in mediation?
You do not have to come to an agreement in mediation. California’s counties for this purpose are classified as “recommending mediation” or “non-recommending mediation” counties.
In a “recommending mediation” county, such as Ventura County, when the parents fail to agree, the mediator will make a recommendation to the judge that the mediator believes is in the best interests of the children. The judge will listen to the parents’ positions on that recommendation, and then may adopt the mediator’s recommendation as the Court’s Order re Custody and Visitation, in whole or in part, or may formulate a different order.
In a “non-recommending mediation” county, such as Los Angeles County, the mediator will not make a recommendation and the parties will go before the judge; the judge will make the decision about what your child’s custodial parenting plan will be.
Can FCS mediation be delayed to give us a chance to resolve our dispute?
California’s legal system is constructed to encourage parents to try to resolve their differences with regard to their children. The overwhelming sentiment we generally hear from the bench is that Family Court judges truly believe it is better for the children for the parties to reach an agreement concerning the future of their own kids.
There are alternative dispute resolution (ADR) options, including:
1. Meet and confer. Parents and their attorneys may meet at any time and as often as necessary to work out a parenting plan without a court hearing. The “meet and confer” can be through attorneys in separate sessions, if the relationship between the two parties is too volatile for face-to-face meetings. At Hartley Lamas Et Al, we have multiple meeting areas in our office specifically designed to accomodate such discussions.
2. Private Child-Centered Mediation. There is actually a Judicial Council Form provided for parties who wish to deescalate the acrimony of their child custody proceedings, which puts FCS mediation in abeyance while the parties meet – with or without attorneys – with a private mediator. The private mediator will meet with the parties and, if the parties agree, with the children, to craft an agreement for custody and visitation. At Hartley Lamas Et Al, we have a list of competent professionals whom we trust to perform child-centered mediation with the parties, while we assist and advise as needed.
3. Voluntary Settlement Conference. This is often a good route to settlement, not just for child-centered issues, but for resolution of all aspects of a case. In a four-way settlement conference, counsel and the parties agree to meet together at one or the other’s office with the intention of resolving as many disputed issues as possible. This is an excellent way to avoid the acrimony and expense of multiple court appearances, and has the added advantages of a) judicial oversight, b) ensuring each party is fully advised of his or her rights, c) allows the parties to control the course of their lives. At Hartley Lamas Et Al, though we are fully prepared to litigate any case from start to finish, we find that the Voluntary Settlement Conference is an excellent tool for sparing parties of the emotional and financial expense of litigation.
If you reach an agreement out of court, FCS will not be required.
If you do reach an agreement via any of the above methods, you will not have to attend Family Court Services Mediation, or endure and afford an evidentiary hearing on custody and visitation. When an agreement is reached, counsel will draw up the agreement in appropriate form and present to the judge to whom your case is assigned for the judge’s approval and signature.
See next week’s blog, for information on the judicial process which is likely to occur when there is no agreement on a parenting plan prior to the scheduled court appearance on that issue.