By: Tess Worrell
When couples decide to divorce, a black hole opens. Everything that seemed secure is up for grabs–finances, children, even where each will live. People hear that mediation offers a better process and a better outcome than litigation–at a far cheaper price. But, it seems so nebulous. Finding a lawyer to take the lead feels more secure–even with the contention and high price. So, how can couples reap the benefits of mediation while feeling secure in the process? Preparation.
Step 1: Ask for a consultation where the mediator defines the process he or she will use
Most mediators offer a free session to inform clients of the details of mediation. The mediator outlines how he or she will proceed through the case giving couples the big picture of how each phase will unfold. With this picture in place, individuals can emotionally and mentally prepare for the sessions.
Step 2: Prepare for creating a parenting plan
Consult with each other and, if needed, a professional to understand the developmental stages of each child in order to gain insight into the developmental tasks for their stage and the natural challenges that accompany those tasks. The professional should also offer insights into the struggles each child is experiencing related to the divorce and how each parent can nurture the child through those struggles. Parents then take these elements into creating a parenting plan that blends the needs of the children with the lifestyle and unique identity of the family.
Step 3: Prepare for financial decisions
The property settlement portion of the agreement allots assets and debts to each person. Rather than seeing these discussions as a division of property, focus instead on creating a plan for using the property accumulated during the marriage to provide financial security for both houses as the couple moves into individual lives. Financial instability on one side or both breeds instability which leads to fractured relationships, conflict, and even extended litigation. Only by focusing on mutual security will children be protected as well as the couple’s future ability to work together as parents.
To prepare for making the best plan for the family’s individual situation:
- Each individual should prepare a detailed budget for the living situation they anticipate post-divorce. Include everything from rent/mortgage to deodorant. The process is painful. Do it anyway. People are often amazed at how the “little expenses” add up. Overestimate costs and underestimate income to ensure a buffer.
- Each individual should collect a list of all assets and debts–bank accounts, retirement funds, investment accounts, house equity–any resource that can be used to create stability for both houses. Likewise–loans, commercial and personal, child support from a prior marriage, and other debts need to be compiled to get an accurate picture of how to best divide in order to protect each future household. Tax returns for the last three years should also be included.
The mediator will compile this information for the couple so they have a concrete picture of obligations and resources so they can decide together the best allocation of each. The decisions will be included in the Mediation Agreement. Please note–these decisions are binding and will not be open for revision once the divorce is finalized, so careful attention to all elements is crucial.
Step 3: Consider retaining an attorney for final review
An alternative name for attorney is counselor-at-law. This is the original core function for attorneys–to counsel their clients as to the pros and cons of their options and the legal impact of their decisions. Once the couple reaches an agreement, each could choose to have an attorney review the agreement. This helps ensure he or she fully understands all the ramifications of the agreement and that all issues have been adequately covered. The attorney should never review with an eye to revisit decided issues simply to try to “get a better deal.” Instead, the attorney’s function is to ensure the client’s full understanding of the agreement and that there are no loose ends which could create conflict later.
With preparation, clients step more confidently into mediation. As the mediator guides the discussions and presents options, the clients gain control over their futures by making wise, cooperative choices for the issues of today’s divorce.