In many counties in North Carolina, the parties to a proceeding involving child custody are required to attend mediation before a permanent custody hearing will be held. The North Carolina Court System’s website calls mediation a “guided conversation that allows people to exchange information and make decisions that can help them avoid going to court.” A custody mediator is an independent professional who meets with both parties to a custody case in an effort to help them reach an agreement acceptable to both and thereby avoid a contested custody hearing.
The Mediation Process
Once a custody or visitation complaint is filed, the court will refer the case to its Custody Mediation Program. The parties must attend an orientation session and one meditation session. Neither party gives up any rights by participating in mediation, nor are the parties required to reach an agreement. The mediator’s role is not to impose a predetermined solution on the parties. Rather, the mediator’s job is to guide the parties towards their own resolution.
Mediation sessions may last for up to two hours. If both parties and the mediator agree, additional sessions may be scheduled. Only the parties attend these sessions, and the discussions are private and confidential. If the parties come to an agreement regarding custody and visitation, the mediator prepares a draft Parenting Agreement for the parties to review with their attorneys. Although the attorneys may not be present during the mediation sessions, the court strongly urges the parties not to sign an agreement until after consulting a lawyer.
Once the parties have signed a Parenting Agreement, a judge must review it as well. If the judge approves, she also signs the agreement and it is incorporated into a court order. If the parties cannot compromise, the case proceeds to a judicial hearing.
Benefits of Custody Mediation
Mediation offers a variety of benefits. First, it allows the parties to avoid the stress and expense of litigation. Moreover, it may provide a template for cooperative co-parenting going forward. The North Carolina Administrative Office of the Courts, in its Best Practices for Mediation 2014, suggests the following additional benefits derived from participating in custody mediation:
- Parents’ co-parenting communication skills and self-determination increase;
- Parents are empowered to identify and promote their children’s best interests; and
- The emotional toll that litigation takes on families is reduced.
When Is Mediation Not Appropriate?
Custody mediation may not be appropriate in all circumstances. If one party has serious safety concerns for themself or their children, the parties should not attempt to mediate. In addition, substance abuse or alcoholism by one or both parties may make mediation a poor choice. In those counties with mandatory mediation, the parties must ask to court to waive the mediation requirement.
Consult a North Carolina LGBT Family Lawyer
As with all aspects of family law, mediation can raise additional issues for LGBT couples. If you are facing a custody dispute, even if you expect to participate in mediation, it is in the best interests of you and your children to consult a lawyer familiar with LGBT issues in the family court process. The skilled and dedicated North Carolina family lawyers of the LGBT Lawyers of Winston-Salem can help. Contact us for more information today.