Child Custody Mediation Checklist

Decades ago, children almost always stayed with their mothers after a divorce. The so-called "tender years doctrine" suggested that women were natural caregivers and should raise their kids until they were older. Now, it's not unusual for parents to split custody amicably.

At the end of a successful child custody mediation meeting, you'll agree on plenty of issues regarding your children. Preparing for this critical conversation can help you make sure your children get the arrangements they need. 

What can you expect during child custody mediation?

Custody is often the most important issue for divorcing couples. Emotions run high, and finding a middle ground isn't easy. Mediation may help. 

During mediation, couples work with a trained third party. The mediator steers the conversation, helps both parties to listen to each other, and guides them to agreements.

Most mediation sessions are measured in hours, not days. But couples have plenty to discuss, and each item they talk about can have a deep impact on a child's future. 


What will you discuss?

Mediation is designed to help couples untangle disagreements. Whatever you and your spouse can't agree upon could be part of your mediation, and your list of talking points might look different from those of another couple. There is no one-size-fits-all mediation.

In general, child custody mediation meetings typically focus on the following issues:

  • Physical custody: Where will your children live? Some couples use an uneven split, asking one parent to keep the children 75% of the time with visits to the other party on a schedule. Other couples use 50/50 splits for their children.
  • Legal custody: Who can make decisions about the children? Some parents with sole physical custody share legal custody with the other parent so they both have a say in the child's healthcare, education, and more. 
  • Visitation schedules: When do children move from one house to another? Specificity matters here. Holidays, vacations, and special occasions can turn into ugly custody battles, so these should be worked out ahead of time. 
  • Supervision: Can both parents interact with the children independently, or should a third party watch those visits? Parents with a history of substance abuse or violence may need to meet court requirements regarding their children. Supervised visits are often the norm in those situations.
  • Child support: Should one parent pay the other to support the children, and if so, how much? States can use complex calculators to determine base payment amounts, but some couples ask for more money due to unique circumstances. 
  • Communication methods: How will parents stay in touch and negotiate difficulties? Fractious couples benefit from detailed plans regarding notice of schedule changes, drop-off/pickup times, and shared calendars. 

Consider this a partial list of the items you'll discuss with your partner. Your to-do list could be longer or shorter, depending on your family's unique circumstances. 

Read: What's the Difference between Legal Custody and Physical Custody?

What to bring to child custody mediation 

Unlike court cases, mediation doesn't involve entering evidence into a legal record. But you are asked to state your case and support it. Documents you bring to your meeting can help you prove why your vision should prevail. 

Your discussion list will dictate what you should bring. Most couples need these items to hold a detailed negotiation:

  • Calendars: Keep notes about your current visitation schedule. If you can, document your future plans. When will the children be with you? When will they be with your ex-partner? What times will you drop off and pick up your children? When will your children be out of school for vacations and holidays?
  • Legal documents: Some custody cases involve suspicion of hazards or abuse. If courts have determined your spouse needs supervised visits, bring proof of those orders with you. 
  • Bills and bank statements: If you're discussing child support payments, bring support for the fees you want. Anything related to your child's education, health insurance premiums, or housing could be helpful. 
  • Prior agreements: If you've settled difficult issues in the past and have written your plans down, bring those documents with you. Your spouse may need a gentle reminder to stop rehashing issues you've already settled. 

Tell your mediator what you're planning to bring with you, and ask if you've forgotten anything important. Mediators have handled many conversations like this, and they may have ideas you've never considered. 

How to prepare for child custody mediation

Your mediator will tell you when and where your meeting will take place, and you can submit discussion items before the talk begins. As you think about your mediation, keep a few core concepts in mind:

Your children come first

It's easy to use mediation sessions to argue with your spouse or try to settle scores. Remember that you're discussing your child's welfare, not your spouse's character.

Put your child's needs above your own. Spend time thinking about how well your child interacts with your spouse and how a continued relationship might be helpful.

Your meeting will take time

Prepare for a long, emotionally difficult day. Focus on sleeping well, eating right, and reducing stress as you prepare for your meeting. Entering the conversation with a strong body and calm mind will be very helpful.

Get as detailed as you can

Sketch out your ideas on calendars, make lists of important holidays, and outline how you think pickups might work best.

You'll negotiate every item together, so you may not get everything you want out of your mediation discussion. But thinking through plans can help you understand what you're willing to give and what isn't negotiable.

Read: Askers vs. Guessers: Understanding Negotiation Styles

Practice staying calm

Mediation discussions can get heated, and it's hard to sit across the table from someone you're divorcing. Find ways to help yourself remain calm and centered.

Paint your fingernails a bright color to remind you of better days ahead, bring your favorite calming tea to sip, or focus on your breathing. Have a plan for exactly what to do when you feel intense stress in the moment.

If questions or concerns appear before your meeting, talk to your mediator. Most professionals are happy to prepare their clients for these important conversations. 

What happens next?

At the end of a successful child custody mediation, parents will emerge with a parenting plan. Mediators can help you document your ideas in official documents. File them with the court as part of your divorce, and your child custody arrangement becomes official. 

Plans you create during divorce mediation are legally binding, so you can head back to court if your partner doesn't abide by your agreement. But some couples head back to mediation after the divorce to settle problems with schedules, communication, and more. 

There's no time limit on mediation, so if the process helped you once, it's reasonable to try it again for new problems. It is something you can always return to as needed.

Watch: We can't agree on custody. Now what?



States Are Making Shared Custody the Default: Could This Be the Arrangement We've Been Waiting For? (October 2022). Parents. 
What to Give Up and What to Fight for in Divorce Proceedings.
Divorce Specialists
After spending years in toxic and broken family law courts, and seeing that no one wins when “lawyer up,” we knew there was an opportunity to do and be better. We created Hello Divorce to the divorce process easier, affordable, and completely online. Our guiding principles are to make sure both spouses feel heard, supported, and set up for success as they move into their next chapter in life.