Mediation is one of the most misunderstood words in California Family Law. Be sure before you go to a mediation appointment you know what kind of mediation you are about to start. Otherwise, that misunderstanding may result in a decision that is hard to reverse.
Child Custody Mediation through Family Court Services –a court-appointed mediator will meet with you and the other parent to discuss parenting agreements in regards to legal custody, physical custody, visitation, exchanges and other parenting decisions. If this is drafted as a stipulation and you sign it, you are asking the mediator to make these agreements into a court order! This is one of the few cases where you are not advised to seek legal counsel before making a binding decision that will become a court order enforceable by the court’s power of contempt and sanction. So be very sure of when you say “yes” versus “can I think about it?” Also, make sure you check first whether your county is “mediating” or “recommending.” If it is a “recommending” county, the mediator can make a report to the judge of a recommended parenting plan if you do not come to an agreement. Also, attorney participation at the mediation varies from county to county.
Case Status Conferences – during a divorce proceeding, the court will ask you to attend status conferences, usually at 6, 12 and 18 months from the filing of the petition. If the parties do not have attorneys, the court often uses these sessions to assist parties in how to move their case forward and mediates their open issues.
Mandatory Settlement Conference – once you are set for trial, the court will likely order you to a Mandatory Settlement Conference where you and the other side will meet with a court-appointed judge, local attorney, or county self-help to try and settle your case. Mandatory means mandatory: make sure you check your local county rules for required filings and their deadlines and that you do appear for this conference.
Private Child Custody Mediation – you and the other parent agree to hire a child custody expert to help you create a child custody order. This is different than a child custody evaluation (also known as a 3111 or 730 evaluation) where the expert can release a recommendation to the court if you do not come to an agreement.
Private Divorce Mediation – you and the other parent decide not to go to court but hire a divorce mediator trained in California divorce law to help you through your divorce. These mediators may also offer to draft your documents for you (“paralegal services”). In picking a private mediator consider whether you want a passive (you are directing the agenda) or active (the mediator serves as a coach to help you set the agenda) approach to your mediation issue. Also, even if you are in mediation, consider hiring an attorney coach to help you properly prepare and to review any proposed agreements that come from your mediations.