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Finding the middle ground in child custody cases

Contested child custody cases can be short and sweet, long and contentious or somewhere in the middle. The majority of my cases fall in the “somewhere in the middle” category but they don’t typically start there. Somewhere in the middle usually means that sometime during the procedural process, the parties reached an agreement and settled.

It’s great when parties are able to reach an agreement about the best interest of their child without letting a judge decide their family’s fate. It’s even better when the case looks like it is going to be long and contentious but ends up moving to the middle and settling.

Typically, my clients come to Legal Aid because they were served with a complaint for custody. Sometimes they are pretty far along in the process and have tried litigating the case themselves. They tend to be the custodial parent and want to remain the custodial parent. When I meet with a client for the first time they may be scared, frustrated, angry, confused or all of the above. It’s difficult for the parties to see the big picture when emotions are high and each party believes what they want is in the child’s the best interest.

So, at some point during the meeting I will ask the client what they want. The most common response is “I want full custody” and the opposing party wants the same thing. If Maryland didn’t have certain pretrial procedural requirements in place, I’m not sure if settling a case would happen as often as it does. I’m thankful the state requires co-parenting classes and, when appropriate, mediation and settlement conferences.

Of course, it takes the cooperation of all the parties involved, even the attorneys, to reach an agreement. The best chance I have for settling a case is when I’m able to have several opportunities to correspond with the other side and the parties end up with a detailed agreement. On the other hand, it’s frustrating when I think a case is resolvable but I’m not able get in contact with the other side.

Then there is the day-of-trial settlement. It’s not my preference to spend hours prepping for trial and then end up settling on trial day. However, if the parties are able to settle their issues without a judge, I guess it doesn’t matter when the parties reach an agreement.

I’m always happy when the parties resolve their custody issues without having to go to trial. Even though I enjoy trial practice, I know my clients are in a much better situation if they reach an agreement rather than being ordered by a judge to do something they absolutely disagree with. But I can’t help but wonder what would have happened if a case went to trial.