What Happens During a Child Custody Settlement Conference?

By Valerie Stevens


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During a contested child custody case, most states require the parents to attend a settlement conference before the court will schedule the case for a trial. State courts advocate settlement conferences to reduce the financial and emotional drain on parents involved in a custody dispute. States rely on successful settlement conferences to lessen the toll on the courts and taxpayers created by trials.


The goal during a child custody settlement conference is to create a parenting plan that addresses all of the issues involved in the custody dispute. Ideally, a parenting plan will emerge during the conference that establishes custody, details a visitation schedule and sets child support. The plan should also address parental behavior around the children. For example, parents might agree to refrain from speaking negatively about the other parent in front of the children. The parents and their attorneys provide court documents and personal information to the person conducting the conference ahead of time so he will know what the issues are.


In some states judges conduct settlement conferences in a courtroom; in other states court-appointed mediators are in charge. When the settlement conference is conducted by a judge, the parents and their attorneys usually begin by briefly stating what they want and why they cannot agree. The judge then addresses each issue separately in an attempt to settle all or most of the issues. The judge can give the parents some indication of how she would be likely to rule on the issues during a trial.


In states where mediators conduct settlement conferences, the parents and their attorneys often meet at the office of the mediator instead of a courtroom. In particularly contentious cases, the parents might sit in separate rooms with their attorneys, while the mediator goes back and forth between the two rooms with proposals and counteroffers. The mediator acts as the voice of the court by telling the parents how a judge is most likely to rule on their demands.


At the conclusion of a successful settlement conference, the parents’ agreement is put into writing immediately and the parents sign the agreement. However, some parents are not able to settle their differences during a settlement conference. If a judge sees that the issues cannot be resolved in a conference, she has the option to set a trial date. If a mediated settlement conference fails, the attorneys will then ask the court to set a trial date.