Some people think it will be easier and safer to have an attorney fight for their legal rights. Unfortunately, maximizing your legal rights often comes at someone else’s expense (for example your spouse or your children). This is referred to as a “win-lose” situation. All too often the transactional costs (both financial and emotional) of a “win” far exceed the value of the victory, especially for children. Although a good lawyer can be helpful, the adversarial legal process is expensive and often seeks to solve problems through opposing positions, and win-lose thinking. In my opinion, this adversarial approach is not only expensive and emotionally challenging; it is also detrimental to the long-term well-being of the people involved, especially the children. It may surprise you to know that most of my clients are unrepresented and successfully reach a complete mediated divorce settlement without retaining an attorney. My standard advice to people considering which divorce process to choose is to start with mediation and see how it goes. You may consult with or retain an attorney at any time and you never give up your right to go to court if mediation is partially or completely unsuccessful. With success rates as high as 80–90% and average savings of 20-50%, it seems the better question to ask may actually be, why wouldn’t you try mediation first?
In order to make informed decisions as to division of marital property, and appropriate amounts of child support and spousal maintenance, it is necessary for each party to be fully informed of identity of each parties' income and assets. This information is typically exchanged through a process known as discovery. This is a process in which the lawyers may utilize numerous techniques for obtaining the financial information necessary to fairly identify and value all income and assets. The lawyers may informally by letter request the information they feel is necessary to identify all marital income and assets, or, in some cases may feel the need to serve "Interrogatories" and "Requests for Production of Documents” which are formal questions and requests for financial information and documents, such as tax returns, bank statements, financial statements and other information, which must be answered and sworn to under oath, within thirty days. In today's practice, some court's control what discovery they will allow, and may not immediately allow for the service of formal discovery, preferring the parties first use informal discovery. The attorneys may also notice the depositions of the parties themselves, or other people who may have relevant information, such as bankers and business associates. At a deposition the witness is sworn under oath, and the attorneys ask questions of the witnesses, which testimony is preserved in writing by a court reporter. The attorneys may also employ experts, such as "vocational evaluators," in the event it is alleged that a spouse who has not been working or who has only been working part time, is able to earn income to contribute to their support. They may also employ accountants or other business valuation experts to appraise family-owned or closely-held businesses. They may also employ other experts to appraise other assets such as real property and personal property, such as furnishings, jewelry and artwork.
Some find it helpful to make a list of marital events, in the order they occurred, as well as a list of the current disputes and another list of the outcomes you would like to see. Whether you put it on paper or not, have a list in your head of which issues are most important to you and which are the least important. Being prepared and on time is key to the success of the divorce mediation. You must also be prepared to talk to your spouse. If you have had trouble communicating in the past, your mediator will be there to facilitate communication. While it is important that you set goals regarding what it will take to resolve the case or the individual disputes, it is equally important you remain flexible. You may be surprised at some of the things you find out during mediation which change your perception of the entire issue.
All people have power in different ways. It is my job as mediator to balance power and ensure that both clients have an equal voice and ability to impact outcomes. In mediation, power comes from knowledge and information. Documented information about assets and liabilities and a broad understanding of each other’s needs are what make you successful in mediation.
The court can also make an order restraining (stopping) an abusive or violent spouse from harassing or harming the other spouse or the children. The court can order one of the spouses to leave and not return to the home. A violation of this part of the order may be a misdemeanor. The party violating it can be ordered to pay a fine or go to jail.
Mediation is flexible and confidential. It gives you and your spouse a way to settle the conflict between you in a way that helps you to work together as parents. This is extremely important if you have children and must interact with your ex-spouse after you are divorced. Mediation brings about communication between the couple, which can then be used when they must discuss issues in pertaining to the children. Lack of communication may have been one of the main reasons for their divorce. Mediation has the ability to help the couple learn to communicate again, if only for the sake of the children, and make their post-divorce relationship better than their married one.
I treat all parties in negotiations with respect. My goal is not to create winners and losers but to use my creativity, my empathy, and my knowledge of the law to create win-win solutions to the practical problems posed by divorce in a cost-effective way. This approach to reaching divorce agreements avoids the high costs, delays, and interpersonal conflict and stress that are inevitable in litigation through family law courts. As a Springfield divorce attorney mediator, I prepare the legal papers and Massachusetts divorce forms reflecting your decisions so that a judge can approve the separation agreement and issue the divorce decree.
Cynthia Brown is a founding shareholder with the Brown Law Offices, P.A., a northwest Twin Cities divorce and family law firm. She is an honors graduate of the University of South Dakota and William Mitchell College of Law. Cynthia’s practice focuses almost exclusively on divorce and family law issues. She publishes a monthly family law column for the Minnesota Lawyer newspaper, and has contributed to Divorce Magazine and The Family Law Forum. Cynthia also serves as a panel attorney for the Anoka County Family Law Clinic.
In any case where parties cannot agree about custody or parenting time of the children, the court will require the parties to attend an orientation and education program. Some courts have programs for children to attend. The program covers the impact that divorce and the restructuring of families and legal proceedings have upon children and families. It will also cover methods for preventing parenting time conflicts and options for resolving disputes.
You can also go to court to get an order to change or set a parenting time schedule or for supervised parenting time. The court may send you to a parenting time expeditor before the court hears your motion for a change in parenting time. The court can order mediation or you can voluntarily agree to use mediation to try to resolve parenting time problems. If one parent denies parenting time, the other parent can go to court to request more parenting time or even to change custody. The court will look at whether or not there was a good reason for denying parenting time. Abuse of the children would likely be a good reason to deny parenting time.
1) Is the lawyer being paid? If there is plenty of unearned money in your trust account to pay for your lawyer’s pending workload, this shouldn’t be a factor. However, if the initial retainer has been used up, and an additional retainer has not been provided, or you have not promptly paid a bill from your attorney, this may be at the root of your lawyer’s lack of attention to your case.
Mediation is also confidential. Nothing said in mediation may be used against a person. Many times people tell me they agreed to something in mediation because they were afraid they might be seen as unreasonable. This should not be a concern in mediation, because of the confidentiality rule. (Outside of mediation, your lawyer can advise you as to what positions are reasonable or unreasonable).
When discussing issues concerning custody parental access, think about where your kids will spend most of their time: where they go to school, where they take dance and karate and other extra-curricular activities. Think about whether they have any special needs and how you’ll care for them, how you’ll cover any private school or college costs, and where they’ll spend birthdays, holidays, and special occasions.
Greene says, “Mediation averages between $4,000 and $10,000,” but litigation lawyers (at least in New York City), start with a $25,000 retainer. “Most people will end up somewhere $20,000 and $200,000, but there certainly are those $300,000 divorces as well. I like to joke that divorce is one area of life in which having money is a disadvantage, because you may find [an attorney] who’s going to fan the flames and give you false hope about how you’re going find the kindly judge that is the father you never had who will see that you’re right, and that your ex is completely wrong. That’s a fantasy that is still held by many people.”
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.
Many individuals mistakenly believe that they’ve abandoned their equity in the family home by moving out. While the court may award the family home to the spouse living in it at the time the divorce is heard, the spouse that moved out will typically be awarded other property or a cash settlement equal to his or her equity in the home. The bottom line here is that you don’t give up your equity in the marital home by moving out.
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All that being said, be aware that contesting the divorce will add to the duration and expense of the case. Contesting the divorce itself can buy you some time during which to pursue reconciliation, and can be the leverage to obtain your spouse’s agreement to therapy or other reconciliation efforts, but at the end of the day, a persistent party will be able to obtain the divorce.
Denying or interfering with an established parenting time schedule can result in more time being awarded by the court to the parent who was denied their regular parenting time. The court will look at the reasons why the parenting time schedule was not followed. If the court determines that denying or interfering parenting time happens more than once and is on purpose, the court will award more time to the parent who was denied their regular parenting time. The only exception is if the denial of parenting time was to protect the child’s physical or emotional health. The court could also give a penalty to the parent who denied or interfered with the other parent’s regular time, or consider it a factor when deciding on a change of custody.