With collaborative law, you and your spouse each hire specially-trained collaborative attorneys who advise and assist you in resolving your divorce-related issues and reaching a settlement agreement. You will meet separately with your own attorney and then the four of you meet together on a regular basis, in "four-way" meetings. A collaborative divorce usually involves other professionals, such as child custody specialists or neutral accountants, who are committed to helping you and your spouse settle your case without litigation. Ordinarily, both spouses and their attorneys sign a "no court" agreement that requires the attorneys to withdraw from the case if a settlement is not reached and the case goes to court.
Through a series of joint sessions we work through the three main components of a legal divorce settlement (property division, financial support and parenting plan). Generally speaking we follow these steps: 1) make an action plan and prioritize issues to be addressed; 2) determine what information needs to be gathered and shared; 3) assess if additional professional assistance from appraisers, accountants, therapists, attorneys, etc. is needed; 4) share and document your property (assets and liabilities); 5) make decisions about dividing your property; 6) create budgets for separate living; 7) determine financial support needs (child support and/or spousal maintenance/alimony); and 8) develop a detailed and workable parenting plan. In all cases, your personal and private information is treated confidentially with the same care and concern as in the legal process. The final product of mediation is a Memorandum of Agreement which is a comprehensive document detailing your agreements and which serves as the basis for your legal documents which are filed with the court.
The flowchart below gives an overview of different processes for completing a divorce in Massachusetts. In 95% of divorce cases in Massachusetts, the final terms of the divorce are agreed upon in a separation agreement that is written up outside of court and presented to a judge who approves it in a 20-minute hearing. There are very different routes, however, for reaching this separation agreement and brief hearing. In many cases, there are court actions–litigation or “contested divorce” processes–before a couple agree on the terms of the divorce in a separation agreement.
· Long-term or Permanent: If the marriage lasted over 10 years or if one party is unable to support themselves, the court can order a longer period of alimony or even permanent alimony in certain circumstances. The court may also order this when one spouse cannot work because he or she is a full-time caregiver of a child with significant mental, physical, or medical needs.
The law allows parents to make voluntary parenting plans. A parenting plan is a plan voluntarily designed by both parents based on the best interests of the child. A parenting plan must include a schedule of the time each parent spends with the child, who will make specific decisions regarding the child, and a way to settle disputes. An agreed-upon parenting plan may use terms other than “physical” and “legal” custody but it must clearly state if the parents have joint legal custody or joint physical custody or which parent has sole legal custody or sole physical custody.
The short answer is “no.” There may be instances in which a Judge requires parties who are represented by an attorney to attend mediation or another ADR process with those attorneys. There are also mediators who will not allow one party to have an attorney present unless the other party also has an attorney present. Generally, however, parties will be able to make this decision on their own, as long as they both agree.
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.
In a very limited number of divorce mediations, one spouse feels the mediator favors the other spouse. In such a case resolution is unlikely to occur. If a spouse is concealing issues during mediation, the mediator cannot compel him or her to reveal such things as accurate assets or income. In contrast, an attorney can depose the spouse, require financial information or even counsel the client to hire a forensic accountant. Divorce mediators don’t have the authority a judge has, meaning the success of the mediation is wholly dependent on the cooperation between the parties.
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