In the ideal world, parents would be able to agree on a custody and visitation arrangement that is in the best interest of their children, without the need to go to court. However, if the parents cannot agree on a custody plan then one party, or both, must file a motion with the court to have the judge decide on the issue.
When you file a custody motion in San Diego County, the first thing you will notice is that the court will set a date for the parties to attend “Family Court Services” (hereinafter “FCS”) several weeks prior to the hearing date. You might be wondering, “what is FCS and how will it affect the hearing?” According to the Superior Court of California, County of San Diego’s website, FCS “provides child custody recommending counseling in family law cases when separating or divorcing parents cannot agree on a child custody sharing plan.” Put another way, FCS is a non-confidential mediation session where both parents speak with a counselor to try and come to an agreement on custody and visitation issues. The session generally lasts 1-2- hours. Child custody and mediation is mandatory in San Diego County, so unless the parties agree to utilize, and pay for, a private mediator, the parties must go to FCS. FCS is provided by the court, and neither parent has to pay for this service.
The hope is that once the parties meet with the FCS counselor, they will come to an agreement on child custody and visitation amongst themselves. If an agreement is reached, the mediator will document the parties’ agreement in writing. It is important to note that San Diego is a “recommending county.” If an agreement is not reached, then the FCS mediator will draft a report with his or her custody and visitation recommendations and the court hearing will proceed. This report is then sent to both parties, and their attorneys, and a copy is provided to the judge in their case. The FCS report carries a substantial amount of weight and the court will likely agree with the mediator’s recommendations unless there are specific and unusual facts in the case.
The reason the court relies so heavily on FCS reports is because judges simply do not have the time to sit and interview parents about custody and visitation issues, though the judge will read and review each parties’ pleadings. The judge only sees and speaks with parents at the court hearing itself, and it is hard for the court to make decisions about a person’s family when the parties are only in front of him or her for a few minutes. Having the parties meet with FCS prior to the court hearing allows the judge to have an “inside” look at the parental relationship and make decisions based on the mediator’s recommendations.
Given the importance of FCS and how it plays a large role when the court decides custody issues, here are a few tips that can help you make the most of the mediation appointment:
- Don’t be late. Allow plenty of time to arrive at the FCS appointment early, taking into consideration traffic and parking.
- Dress appropriately. Dress as if you are interviewing for the “mom” or “dad” position. Wear comfortable clothes, but nothing too flashy. We recommend not wearing shorts or flip flops and covering up any tattoos or piercings.
- Do not argue with the counselor. If the counselor says something you do not agree with, you can absolutely respond, but do so in a polite and well-mannered way.
- Be polite to the other parent. This may be a hard tip to follow, but it is best to not bicker or fight with the other parent in front of the counselor.
- Be honest. Now is the time to be completely open and honest about your children, the other parent, and what your desired visitation schedule would look like.
Prior to meeting with FCS it is important to discuss all of your concerns with your attorney. Your attorney can help you prepare for FCS and advocate for you in the court room if the FCS report is not in your favor.
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