Whether you’re going through a divorce or splitting up with your ex, worries about child custody are some of the most significant stressors when your family situation is changing.
A lot of times when we think of child custody, we think of an adversarial court setting, where each party is fighting each other. Litigation is costly, and ends in either a trial, where the end result is out of your control, or a negotiated settlement.
There is an alternative to taking your case to court, though. Child custody mediation can help you write a parenting plan that works at a fraction of the cost.
Advantages of Child Custody Mediation
If you battle out your child custody case before the Courts, you’re giving up some of your own autonomy. Instead of the parents making decisions about where your children will live and how they will be cared for, a judge will make those decisions for you.
Mediation allows you to work collaboratively with the other parent to get the best results for your child. Properly done, mediation is a setting full of empathy and healthy communication.
In this setting, your mediator will help you navigate common interests and work together to solve any problems that may arise. When you choose an experienced mediator, this process is often dramatically quicker than fighting an adversarial battle in court – not to mention less expensive.
Even if you have already started litigating, a mediator can help you find the areas where both parents are on the same page. They can then prepare documents communicating these areas of agreement to the Courts, saving you time and money on the areas where there is no conflict between the two of you.
What happens in child custody mediation?
Lawyers can serve many roles, but they shouldn’t serve multiple roles to one client. While an attorney can mediate or litigate, they cannot do both at the same time.
Mediators can inform you about the law and help you work within it, but they cannot advise you or help you find the ‘best’ outcome like they would if they were representing you in court.
That means that when you sit down with a lawyer for mediation, you won’t get legal advice on the most financially or emotionally advantageous outcome for yourself.
Instead, you’ll sit down – usually with the other parent – and the mediator will guide you through all the options within the context of Massachusetts domestic relations law. They cannot tell you which option is ‘best’ for you, but they will help both parties focus on the best interests of the children.
What can a child custody mediator do, then?
A mediator can use their legal expertise to help the two of you write a parenting plan the courts will accept. They can plug in your income, assets and other financial variables, and calculate the amount of child support you’ll be expected to pay or receive.
Doing this through mediation saves you time, money and emotional energy over an adversarial court battle.
Writing a Workable Parenting Plan
A parenting plan is a document laying out how your child will be cared for on a day-to-day basis. Parenting plans in Massachusetts must include:
- Custody declaration.
- Plans for the child’s education.
- Plans for the child’s health care, including insurance coverage.
- A plan for resolving any problems that may arise after the parenting plan is implemented.
- A defined and detailed schedule outlining who will be in charge of the child and when.
When we sit down with mediation clients, we work out a weekly schedule. We don’t just figure out which parent the children will stay with during the week vs weekend; we delve in to all the little details up front.
For example, if the child is in daycare, who is going to handle pickup and drop off each day? Who will be there to get them on the bus and welcome them when they get home? If it can’t be a parent, are there childcare arrangements that both parties can agree upon?
We’ll also take things like extracurricular activities, summer breaks, vacations, holidays and family traditions into account as we work together to write a parenting plan the courts will accept.
When is mediation appropriate?
In order for mediation to work, the child’s interest have to be at the forefront of everyone’s minds. If you are putting your own wants over what is best for the child – or what your mediator tells you the Courts will accept as best for your child – you’re inevitably going to come to an impasse in mediated negotiations.
If both parents are willing to compromise their own wants for their children’s well-being, mediation tends to be effective.
When both parties are willing to be 100% honest.
Having your child’s best interest at heart means being 100% honest. No hiding financial accounts. No lying about issues in your relationship or living situation to your mediator. If you are not completely transparent with your mediator, they cannot give you the best information in context of the law.
When the couple’s power dynamics are equal.
If you are in a relationship where one partner is controlling to the point of being abusive, mediation is likely not a good match. In these situations, it’s difficult to impossible to achieve honesty. And when someone is jockeying for control, they often find themselves placing their own needs over those of their children.
However, if you are in a relationship where the power dynamics are equal and fear will not play a role in negotiations, mediation is a great way to cut down on legal fees and ensure that both you and your ex have more say in your child’s final parenting plan.
If this sounds like you, please call or email us. We would love to talk to you about whether your situation is appropriate for mediation and what to expect.
How much does child custody mediation cost in Massachusetts?
We charge a flat rate of $500 for each mediation up to 2 hours. Parties typically divide the cost evenly, unless they agree to a different arrangement.
Massachusetts Child Custody FAQ
Who has custody of a child born out of wedlock in Massachusetts?
An unwed mother has sole legal custody in the state of Massachusetts. Even if the father is known and listed on the birth certificate.
Whether you have a marriage certificate or not, there are many instances where shared custody is in the best interest of your child. If both parents are pursuing this goal, mediation can work. If you want to work out a parenting plan with your ex, reach out for a consultation today.
What are the chances of the father getting custody in Massachusetts?
Custody is rarely an all-or-nothing decision in Massachusetts. Most parents have shared legal and physical custody. It’s the parenting plan that determines how often each parent sees their children.
Creating a parenting plan that works for both of you is a huge part of mediation sessions. We’ll work out who has physical custody throughout the week and when, getting into all the granular details and addressing holidays and vacations. Experienced family law attorneys who have both litigated and mediated custody cases in Massachusetts, can help you ensure your parenting plan is one the Courts will accept.
How is the best interest of the child determined in Massachusetts?
Although every child’s best interests are different, there are some common themes.
If the child has thrived in their current environment, the courts will want them to have stability. To maintain that stability, the following factors are generally viewed favorably:
- Remaining in the same school.
- Maintaining close contact with those people they already see often, such as relatives and friends.
- Staying in regular contact with both parents, bearing in mind the logistics of each individual situation.
Courts usually do not like to see children in long commutes to school in the mornings, and will want to encourage the children’s afterschool and weekend activities.
When you go through mediation, you can make these decisions together as parents rather than allowing the courts to decide. You can do so with an experienced family law professional by your side. Sign up for an initial consultation today.
What is the definition of an unfit parent in Massachusetts?
Any of the following circumstances could lead the Courts to designate a parent as unfit:
- Abuse or neglect of your child or another household member.
- Inability to provide for the basic needs of your child.
Usually, when the unfit parent designation comes up, the Department of Children and Families (DCF) is involved because a mandated reporter (a teacher, physician, or therapist) reported the abuse or neglect.
Where one parent is unfit over a long period of time, the Courts are likely to veer away from their regular practice of granting shared physical custody to both biological parents. It’s still important to have competent legal counsel in these proceedings, as there are critical privacy protections when DCF or mental health are implicated in a family law case. You would benefit from having someone navigate these issues for you.
At what age can a child decide which parent to live with in Massachusetts?
Minor children do not have unilateral say in their custody arrangements, regardless of age.
Older children’s opinions will be given more weight by the courts, however. It is inappropriate for a child, no matter their age, to testify in a family court proceeding; and their mental health records are highly protected. There are circumstances where the child’s opinion can be admissible from statements to a court-appointed Guardian Ad Litem (“GAL”) or Attorney Representing Children (aka “ARC”).
The ultimate custody decision is made by the parents through a child custody agreement – which we can draw up in mediation — or by the Courts after they consider what they interpret to be the best interests of the child.