As a family law attorney and mediator for almost 30 years, I spend a great deal of time educating prospective clients and the public about the many benefits of choosing to mediate their divorce rather than selecting the more traditional litigation path. Even though divorce mediation is much less costly, less time consuming, and less divisive and stressful than the adversarial model of litigation, I often hear the same three concerns raised about mediation.
In reality, because mediation is such an adaptable and holistic approach to divorce, these common concerns are all well handled in the mediation setting. In fact, almost any divorce case, or really any family law matter, is suitable for mediation and the parties can successfully resolve their issues without the great expense and emotional costs of litigating.
Misconception #1: Mediation Won’t Work in High-Conflict Cases
Probably the most common misconception that I hear from people about divorce mediation it that they believe it is only suitable for couples that are very amicable. Their perception is that since they are not getting along very well with their spouse, they can’t sit down together and discuss anything let alone issues regarding their money and children. In fact, mediation is very well suited to helping parties who are high conflict to work through their differences and come to a reasonable solution.
While it may be true that the two people are too emotional to sit down together alone, in mediation they work with their mediator, a trained professional and neutral third party, who has experience and training to help them focus on the issues at hand and to work together to resolve them. The mediator has many tools available to assist when emotions run high, such as caucusing by meeting with the parties in separate rooms or using an online platform until emotions have a chance to settle down. The mediator is skilled at helping the people to focus on the issues at hand and the future rather than the things that happened in the past that brought them to divorce in the first place.
Another helpful approach for very high-conflict cases can include bringing an additional professional into the mix, such as a marriage and family therapist, who can meet with one or both parties in the mediation session or separately, as appropriate. The goal of the therapist is not to reconcile the parties, but to help them develop a better ability to communicate around the emotional roadblocks that they are facing. In the end, by going through the mediation process together and reaching reasonable solutions to the issues facing them, parties that mediate learn new ways of working together as they go forward into their new future. This is a huge benefit, especially when children and co-parenting are involved.
Misconception #2: The Mediator Makes Decisions for You
The belief that the mediator will act as a quasi-judge and tell the people what they are going to do is another very common misunderstanding that I hear about the divorce mediation process. In actual fact, one of the greatest advantages of the mediation process is that the parties themselves retain control over all decisions made and agreements reached. This is very different from the litigation model where a judge, essentially a stranger in a black robe, imposes orders and judgments on the parties.
In mediation, the mediator’s role is not decision maker, but is to act as a neutral support system for both parties equally. The mediator helps the couple identify all the issues that they need to resolve around their divorce, gives them information and education about the law and other facts around those issues, and facilitates their discussion of those issues so that the parties themselves can decide what is the best course of action for them.
It is understandable that when people reach agreements together based upon what they think is right and fair, their agreements are much more sustainable going forward than court orders that tell the parties what they must do or not do, pay or give to the other party. In fact, a great advantage of mediating your divorce settlement is that you will make all the decisions together about what is best for you both and for your children as you go forward.
Misconception #3: You Don’t Need a Lawyer If You are Mediating Your Divorce
Finally, the parties in mediation are often surprised to hear their mediator suggest that they consider retaining consulting attorneys. The thought is that they chose to mediate to avoid fighting their case out with attorneys and they don’t want that extraordinary expense. However, the role of a consulting attorney in mediation is very different than the role of a litigation advocate and is a very helpful assistance when mediating.
In the mediation process, your mediator will provide you with much of the information and legal background that you need to discuss your issues. At times though, because the mediator must remain neutral, they cannot give either party advice specific to their best interests because that would be against the interests of the other party. Here, a consulting attorney, that is accessed on a limited, as-needed basis, can provide that specific legal advice to help a party decide how to best move forward in the negotiations.
The small hourly cost for the attorney’s time is well worth the expense as it helps the client to make decisions and thereby move the mediation forward. In addition, at the point in the process when the parties have finalized all their agreements and a draft Separation Agreement is prepared, it is advisable that both parties review that agreement with their own attorney before they sign it. After all, this document will have lasting impact on their finances, their children, and their lives for some time to come, and it is prudent and wise to be sure that they both fully understand the terms in the agreement and that it accurately reflect their wishes.
In the end, the use of a consulting attorney in mediation only as needed will cost far less than full-scale divorce litigation representation and is well worth the expense to ensure that both parties are fully advised and supported, and the divorce mediation can be successful.
To sum up, these misconceptions about divorce mediation really highlight some of the many advantages of mediating your divorce. Because the format is highly adaptable and collaborative, the parties will be supported and assisted in working cooperatively to resolve their issues. Through the process, they will make agreements that they choose to live by and will be best prepared to go forward in a productive and positive manner. Best of all, they will have avoided the expense and stress of a long, protracted court battle. In the end, almost every divorce case is suitable for mediation despite these common misconceptions.