In almost all cases, you will be required to attempt some form of alternative dispute resolution. This will typically take the form of "mediation" which is a process in which a neutral third party, typically an attorney trained in mediation, will attempt to assist the parties in reaching their own compromise settlement of some or all issues between the parties. The mediator does not make decisions, but rather facilitates a discussion between the parties (sometimes alone and sometimes with the assistance of counsel) aimed at reaching settlement of your issues. The mediation process is confidential, and if you are not successful in reaching a mediated settlement, the judicial officer will never learn what positions either party took in mediation. As part of the mediation process, the mediator will request both parties provide an accurate summary of income, assets and liabilities. It is recognized that sometimes, one party controls some or all of this information, and skilled mediators attempt to assure that there is a full and fair disclosure of financial information, and a full and fair discussion of the issues.
If any issue pertinent to a custody or parenting time determination, including parenting time rights, is unresolved, the matter may be set for mediation of the contested issue prior to, concurrent with, or subsequent to the setting of the matter for hearing. The purpose of the mediation proceeding is to reduce acrimony which may exist between the parties and to develop an agreement that is supportive of the child's best interests. The mediator shall use best efforts to effect a settlement of the custody or parenting time dispute, but shall have no coercive authority.
During this stage, the mediator may first begin to discuss the general legal rules that might apply to your case. This can include the laws of your state dictating how a judge would divide your assets and debts, how child custody and child support would be decided, when and how alimony can be ordered, and laws dealing with related issues like taxes and life and health insurance. This general legal information will help you decide how to approach the issues in your case.
If your ex-spouse is ordered to pay a debt but doesn't pay it, the creditor may force you to pay it if you originally signed for the credit. This can happen no matter what the divorce decree says. If that happens, you can ask the court to order your ex-spouse to pay you back. The court can also find your ex-spouse in contempt of court for violating the court's order.
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.
NOTE: There are many ways to divide real estate in a divorce. The court forms for marriage dissolution (divorce) only give you 1 option -- one spouse gets 100% of the house, cabin, or other real estate, and the other spouse gets a lien. But, you can change the court forms. An attorney can explain other options, advise you about the law, and draft terms to meet your situation. If your divorce involves real estate, you should get advice from a lawyer on your legal rights and options.