How Do I Prepare For A Custody Conference?
A custody conference is scheduled by the court after a custody action is filed. In Lancaster County (and most surrounding counties), the custody conference is the first official court hearing in which the parties must attend. Typically, no spouses, in-laws, significant others or any other third parties attend the conference. In some circumstances, the children may be ordered to attend the conference, but this is very unusual.
The purpose of the custody conference is to try and work out a custody schedule as well as other related issues such as: transportation, vacation, holidays, telephone contact, exchange locations, birthdays, special events, etc. The conference is attended by a conference officer, the parties and their lawyers. The conference officer serves as a quasi mediator for the parties in hopes of working out their differences. Although it is informal (no judge, no court reporter, no witnesses) the conference can still be a very emotional and important step in the custody process. Both parties are encouraged to use the conference as a way towards working out a custody schedule that is best for their child and respectful of the other parent. Often times I have seen parents come together at these conferences despite prior grievances and differences. As you can imagine, that is not always the case. You should be willing to listen and engage one another during the conference.
If a final agreement is made at the conference, the parties sign off and the custody action is over. A final written order will come in the mail a few weeks after the conference, setting forth the terms of the parties custody agreement. A violation of the custody agreement/order comes with steep consequences, including a finding of contempt and having to pay the other’s party’s attorney’s fees; however, if the parties agree on a modification of the custody agreement, they are free to do so without any court involvement. In fact, this kind of cooperation is encouraged by the Court.
If the parties are not able to come to an agreement, the conference officer may either: 1) schedule a hearing before a judge; or 2) order a follow-up conference (usually about 90 days after the initial conference). In either case, the conference officer will prepare a recommended order (signed by the judge) after having listened to both sides.
A judge will preside over a custody trial (no jury) and makes a decision based on numerous enumerated custody factors. Witnesses are sworn to testify. Depending on the age of the child/children, the court may also hear from them as well. The court must consider all the factors in determining what is in the “best interest” of the child. Practically speaking, nearly anything that does or may impact the health and well-being of the child is considered. That often times includes matters that are not specifically listed in the custody statute.
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