First impressions count in custody cases

Perhaps nowhere are first impressions more vital than in child custody cases, at the custody conciliation conference.

These days, 49 of Pennsylvania's 67 counties begin their official child custody process with this kind of alternative hearing procedure. Nearly all Midstate counties do so.

For both sides, this venue will mark the first time they appear before the court-appointed conciliation or conference officer, typically a lawyer with extensive family law experience. Here, both sides will be afforded opportunities to lay out custody arguments and detail their preferred schedules.

The party who is most prepared with a coherent, fact-supported case has the advantage. Often, this translates into achieving much of what the parent wants if a temporary custody order is issued by the hearing officer. But it also goes a long way in shaping the final custody order.

Here's how to create a positive impact.

Winning Custody Cases at the Start

A custody conciliation conference is simply a pre-trial mediation session.

While these conferences may sound like little more than preliminary exercises, in reality, this is where the meat of the custody case actually begins, and where the final custody order starts to take shape.

The bottom line: Never go into a custody conciliation conference unprepared.

If, for example, a parent is seeking full custody, he or she must be prepared to present facts and arguments that fully support that proposal. Parents should have proposed custody schedules ready to go, listing all potential tradeoffs between the parents when it comes to sharing weekends, birthdays and holidays.

This kind of preparation not only makes a positive first impression on the hearing conference officer. It offers something tangible for him to frame his order around.

A workable custody solution proposed by a prepared parent can go a long way toward shaping the hearing officer's preliminary custody recommendation. This is huge as the order may remain in place for months until the parties go before a judge for the final custody order.

Types of Custody in Pennsylvania

In Pennsylvania, with all things being equal, the default position is shared custody, both physical and legal, unless circumstances justify otherwise.

If a client goes in to a conciliation conference demanding full custody, but no facts shows that the other parent is unfit, unavailable or living out of town, this over-reach can do serious harm to the credibility of the parent. This is not the venue where a parent should open the discussion with some outrageous demand, unsupported by facts. Hearing conference officers can view this unfavorably.

Hearing conference officers seek conciliation and compromise. In most cases, legal custody is going to be shared -- meaning both parents will remain involved in all major decisions regarding the child, enjoying equal rights and access to all records and information.

Physical custody -- where the child is at any given time -- is a function of the best interests of the child, not the convenience of parents' schedules or personal agendas. Important factors include the proximity to schools, friends and other family members. Physical custody can be shared, partial or by visitation. The actual details literally come down to days on a calendar, with both parents mapping out a workable system of overnight stays at their respective residences.

In many cases, the conciliation officer will want the two parties and their attorneys to meet with each other in hopes of reaching an agreement before the officer becomes deeply involved.

If a parent comes to the hearing conference armed with a fair custody schedule that recognizes the other parent's fitness, interests and lifestyle, this custody calendar can become a blueprint for the hearing conference officer's temporary order. By winning the officer's recommendation, the stage is set to shape the final custody order.

There is little downside to making a good-faith attempt at hammering out a workable custody arrangement at these preliminary sessions. Nothing the parties say at such hearings can be used against them in the larger custody case. This encourages openness and honesty. And while there are no evidentiary requirements at these conferences, facts and reason always rise above emotion and irrational behavior.

Typically, these sessions are scheduled within 45 days of filing for custody, so timing is critical.

An experienced Harrisburg custody attorney can help you prepare to make that all-important positive first impression on the hearing conference officer - to help shape the outcome of your entire custody case.


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