The idea of going to court can be a daunting undertaking for many people. Navigating the Court system is not always an easy task, especially if you don’t have an attorney. Dealing with child custody issues is always challenging and emotional.
It is always important to have a child custody order or parenting time order from the Court. This order will be enforceable when parents decide not to follow the parenting plan. Otherwise, without a Court Order, there are no rules and everything is fair game. In a perfect world, no rules would be great, but life is too spontaneous and unpredictable to not have some guidelines to follow.
However, getting a Court Order does not necessarily mean you need a Judge to make that determination for you. Even though you have to go through the Court system to get a child custody order, there are two ways of getting to the end of the road without going through custody hearings; mediation and arbitration.
Mediation is the least formal option available. Mediation is generally always required by the Courts, but it is a great tool to help you and the other parent come to an agreement about child custody. The key word with this process is agreement. In order for mediation to work, parents must come to the table willing to be flexible and compromise parts of their positions to meet in the middle. Now, this does not mean you should cave on all your positions, what it means is you should have an open mind in order to effectively negotiate with the other side. In my experience, coming to an agreement is generally always a better outcome for your children than having the Court make that decision. Why? Because it is a decision you and your former partner made together about parenting time, rather than a stranger. That’s called co-parenting. Once an agreement is made, the parties file it with the Court, requesting the Court grant it as an official Order. At that point, you won’t have to have a formal hearing on custody.
The second option is arbitration. Arbitration is more formal than mediation but less formal than a Court hearing. Arbitration is an out of Court process, where a neutral third party makes the decision. It is a nice mix of mediation and hearing because you get the informality of being able to negotiate mixed with the formality of a third party making the decision for you. In order for you to go through arbitration, you and the other parent must agree to arbitration and file the agreement with the Court. What is important to know is that the arbitration agreement becomes binding. Once the arbitrator makes the decision, you cannot go into court and ask the Judge for a different decision.
If neither parents can agree at mediation or agree to arbitration, the only route left is going through the Court and having a formal hearing on the issues. This may cause some anxiety, but if you have to go to Court it is not an end all be all situation. Remember, child custody can be modified. Life is constantly changing, so you should expect that your parenting plan changes too.