The majority of child custody agreements can be reached before a case goes to court, provided both parties are willing to work together. This article provides an overview of methods parents can use to arrive at a child custody agreement: negotiation, mediation, collaborative law, and arbitration.
Settlement Through Informal Negotiations
If parents are willing to work together to resolve the issues of child custody and visitation, they can negotiate an agreement. The parties in a custody dispute may prefer to have their positions negotiated by an attorney. Or they may negotiate themselves and consult their attorneys before finalizing the agreement.
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 find they have learned to work together by engaging in the process. But parents have to be willing to do it.
ADR options are less adversarial and more casual 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 are required to use mediation to try to reach an agreement on child custody and parenting time. If that fails, then they can go to court.
Rarely used in family law cases, arbitration is a more structured ADR method. A neutral third party makes 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
The end result of successful child custody negotiations is a written agreement. 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,
- That it is in the best interest of the child, and
- That it does not blatantly favor one spouse over the other.
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 it or face legal consequences.
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.
It's important to have a strong and skilled negotiator in your corner. An experienced child custody lawyer can safeguard your interests without jeopardizing parent-to-parent negotiations.