Working Together to Resolve Custody

Most child custody agreements can be reached before a case goes to court, provided both parties are willing to work together. If parents are willing to work together to resolve child custody and visitation issues, they can negotiate an agreement. 

This article provides an overview of the methods parents can use to arrive at a child custody agreement: negotiation, mediation, collaborative law, and arbitration.

Settlement Through Informal Negotiations

The parties in a custody dispute may prefer to have their positions negotiated by an attorney. Otherwise, they may negotiate among themselves and consult their attorneys before finalizing the agreement. If the parties can agree, the family court can review and modify or approve the agreement. The family court will make the final custody order. They are the final decision-making authority.

Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) and Child Custody

One way to reach an agreement is to use an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) method. Two methods are common in family law: mediation and collaborative law. ADR methods tend to reduce conflict, enhance collaboration, and even improve relationships. Parents sometimes learn to work together by engaging in the process. But parents must be willing to engage.

ADR options are more casual and less adversarial than other methods. They encourage and facilitate early settlement. With mediation and collaborative law, parents take an active role in making key decisions. They may have their attorney present to assist them in the process.

In some states, divorcing parents must use mediation to try to reach an agreement on child custody and parenting time. If that fails, then they can go to court.

Arbitration is a more structured ADR method, though it is rarely used in family law cases. A neutral third party will make the decision after hearing each side's arguments. In a child custody case, the arbitrator's decision is not necessarily final. The parties may still be able to resolve key issues at a later date before they go to court.

Finalizing Custody Out-of-Court: Parenting Agreements

A written agreement is the end result of successful child custody negotiations. This agreement is called a "settlement agreement," a "custody agreement," or a "parenting agreement." This agreement usually requires a judge's signature for entry as a final order.

If the custody agreement is part of a divorce proceeding, the agreement is filed in the court where the divorce petition was filed. There will be a court hearing. The judge will review the agreement and ask whether each party understands the agreement and chooses to sign it voluntarily.

The judge wants to see that:

  • The agreement was negotiated fairly
  • The agreement is in the best interest of the child
  • The agreement does not blatantly favor one spouse over the other

In considering the best interest of the child, the court will look at a variety of factors. The family court will look at the child's relationship with either parent. The court will consider the child's needs and the ability of each co-parent to meet those needs. Ultimately, the court will put the safety and well-being of the minor child first.

If these conditions are met, the agreement will almost always receive court approval. The child custody or parenting agreement then becomes a binding court order or "decree." The parties to the agreement must adhere to this parenting plan or face legal consequences.

Types of Custody Arrangements

There are several different custody arrangements that the court may order. Generally, courts prefer awarding joint custody arrangements if it is in the best interest of the child. These are arrangements where parents share both joint legal custody and joint physical custody. Legal custody refers to the parent's ability to make major decisions about the child's life, such as health care, medical care, or education decisions. Physical custody refers to where the child lives on a day-to-day basis.

If the court finds that one parent is “unfit," the court may deem them the non-custodial parent. This might happen in instances of parental substance abuse or domestic violence. This parent may have to pay child support to the other parent. Child support is a financial obligation used to cover expenses for the child's life. The other parent will have sole legal custody and sole physical custody of the child, or some combination thereof.

Even Amicable Parents Can Use Legal Help With Child Custody Negotiations

Custody issues can be challenging, especially during a difficult parental separation. If you can work together cooperatively, you can save time and money while reaching a mutually acceptable agreement. Work with a professional to solve your child custody dispute. It's important to have a strong and skilled negotiator in your corner.

A family law attorney can help provide you with valuable legal advice. They will advise you on your parental rights, custody rights, and visitation rights. A child custody attorney can assist with your court case until the end.

Talk to an experienced child custody lawyer about your custody matters today.

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Can I Solve This on My Own or Do I Need an Attorney?

  • Both parents can seek custody of their children — with or without an attorney
  • An attorney can help get the custody and visitation agreement you want
  • An attorney will advocate for your rights as a parent

A lawyer can help protect your rights and your children's best interests. Many attorneys offer free consultations.

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Don't Forget About Estate Planning

Once new child custody arrangements are in place, it’s an ideal time to create or change your estate planning forms. Take the time to add new beneficiaries to your will and name a guardian for any minor children. Consider creating a financial power of attorney so your agent can pay bills and provide for your children. A health care directive explains your health care decisions and takes the decision-making burden off your children when they become adults.

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