Court Sponsored Custody and Parenting Mediation: What You Need To Know
If you have minor children and custody is at issue in your divorce (or in cases where the parties were not married), the court has a number of services available to parents to attempt to help them determine a custody and parenting time plan that takes into account a family’s individual needs and the best interests of the children. One such program is the court’s free custody and parenting mediation program.
After attending the parent education workshop (for more information on that program click here: https://dalyfamilylaw.net/what-is-the-parent-education-program/ ) you will be scheduled to attend a custody and parenting mediation session with a mediator employed by the court. Each county has their own dedicated mediator(s) for this purpose. The mediation is at no cost to either party and is provided as a service to litigants by the court system. If, however, the parties have resolved custody and parenting time and there is signed agreement, or a consent order, prior to the mediation session, then mediation will not be necessary.
Prior to attending mediation, you will receive a notice or order regarding telling you when your session is scheduled. The notice or order will reflect what to expect and the issues to be discussed. Be aware that attorneys are typically not present for the mediation session. You will be asked to present what you feel is a fair custody and parenting time arrangement, and the reasons why you believe it is fair at the session. You should discuss all of your options with your attorney who can help you formulate a proposal. (An informational pamphlet published by the NJ Courts can be found here: https://www.njcourts.gov/forms/11904_parenting_time.pdf ) You should be prepared to discuss and to take into consideration employment or other issues that impact yours or the other parent’s ability to care for your children at specific times, as well as whether you have or will be able to obtain suitable living arrangements for you and your child(ren). You should also consider the child(ren)’s school district and other factors that could change as a result of any agreement you come to with the other parent. You, or your attorney, will ultimately prepare and develop a formal written custody and parenting plan on the issues to be resolved such as legal and physical custody, decision making, a regular parenting time schedule, holidays, vacations, communication, etc. This must be filed if mediation is unsuccessful and can be prepared before mediation to assist you in mediation. It can even be sent to the mediator or filed with the court beforehand.
The mediation session is not binding, meaning you are not “stuck” with anything discussed or resolved in mediation until a formal written agreement is signed. If the mediator believes that an agreement has been reached, they will prepare an MOU – Memorandum of Understanding. If they feel the two of you are making progress, they may schedule another session to try to get a resolution. Please remember: you should not sign any memorandum or document in mediation until you have spoken to your attorney because once it is signed by both of you it will likely be binding and only subject to modification based upon a substantial change in circumstances. If you do not both sign the MOU, it is not yet binding. Normally, the mediator will send the MOU to your attorney following the session so that you can review it with him or her and discuss any questions you have, or changes you have or may want to make to it before it becomes a final agreement.
Resolving your custody and parenting time issues before the financial issues can save both time and money. It will absolutely remove worry about what will happen to their children once the two of you are divorced. It will also lessen the tension that comes from separation for both the parties and their children and keep your children out of the middle.
If you do not resolve your custody and parenting time issues, then there is no MOU prepared and the mediator simply tells the judge that those issues were not resolved. The judge will then know that they need to address custody and parenting time and will typically schedule a conference to address these issues. Bear in mind that resolution of custody and parenting time in litigation may require a custody and parenting expert \ evaluation at additional cost, time, and stress.
Some important terms to consider when deciding about custody and parenting time:
Legal Custody – this designates who makes decisions regarding the child(ren). If the parties share joint legal custody, then they are both responsible for making major decisions relating to the child(ren) in accordance with their best interests. If sole legal custody is awarded to one parent, that parent has the sole decision-making authority for the health, education, religious upbringing and welfare of the child[ren] or in just one of these areas. New Jersey courts largely prefer joint custody arrangements where both parties are involved in making decisions for their children, absent or a reason otherwise. Those reasons can be discussed with your attorney.
PPR (Parent of Primary Residence)/PAR (Parent of Alternate Residence) – Terms that are used to designate which parent the child primarily lives with and which parent the child lives with the rest of the time.
Parenting Time/Visitation – In New Jersey, the courts normally use the term “parenting time” to discuss when a child is with a particular parent as they view any time a child is with a parent as the time for a party to parent their child(ren) and not just visit.
If you, or someone you know, has any questions regarding these issues or other family law, domestic violence, municipal court, or criminal law issues, we encourage you to reach out to Daly & Associates at (973) 292-9222. We are ready and willing to help you resolve your case in a manner that works for you and your family’s unique situation.