Divorce can be a difficult and stressful process, even in amicable situations. Navigating the maze of legal issues is confusing for many separating couples. To make matters more complicated, there few hard-and-fast rules and rarely any black-or-white answers. Instead, the outcome of important matters such as property division, alimony and child custody hinges on the unique circumstances of your family.
Case in point: I had a client once who — contrary to my advice — chose to engage in settlement negotiations for several months prior to commencement and filing of the divorce, rather than filing first and then working on settlement. The pre-filing settlement negotiations did not bear fruit, and because of the delay, the valuation date did not occur until much later than it otherwise would have, with the result that a $180,000 dividend payment received by my client was treated as martial property, when it otherwise would not have been.
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Once your negotiations are finished and you have found a solution, either the mediator or one of your attorneys will write an agreement and, in many cases, a parenting schedule or parenting plan. These documents will be incorporated with the rest of your divorce paperwork and become part of your divorce judgment, which means that a court could enforce them if one of you doesn't do what the agreements say you'll do.
Although there are many types of mediation, the mediator’s role in general is to remain neutral; she cannot give advice to either party, nor can she act as either party’s attorney. However, the mediator can and does allow the parties to exchange information and encourage a level of trust in the other party and in the process so that parties can best find a solution that suits both parties.
When a couple has made the decision to enter into divorce mediation, there are preparations which can be made which will ensure the mediation is more beneficial to both parties. Having an experienced divorce attorney in your corner is important before you attend mediation. Because a mediator is unable to give legal advice to either party, your legal questions can then be answered by your attorney. Before attending mediation, it is a good idea to make sure you are organized. This means having all documents pertaining to the issues you will be discussed together in a cohesive manner and bringing those documents to mediation.
After the mediator covers the rules of mediation and insures that any necessary agreements to mediate are signed, the mediator explains the mediation process. The parties or their representative may then make opening statements to identify issues and clarify perceptions. Many mediators will encourage the parties to begin a conversation during general caucus.
If you can prove that an item of property was "non-marital," the court will not usually award that property to your spouse. Non-marital property is property owned by one of you before your marriage, or was a gift or inheritance to you alone during your marriage. Portions of a personal injury or Workers Compensation award might also be non-marital. The court may award non-marital property to the non-owner spouse only if it would cause unfair hardship or under other limited circumstances.
In the end, spouses who go through divorce mediation are much more likely to be satisfied with the final results. During a litigated divorce, neither spouse is likely to get what they asked for, leaving at least one of them angry and bitter over the outcome. When the final award is totally unexpected, that anger and bitterness only increase. Such a decision can leave that spouse feeling powerless and victimized. He or she may feel the judge was biased, and the settlement was far from fair or equitable. Mediation limits the feelings of victimization, even when the financial settlement is relatively modest.
Judges often tell litigants not to argue over the physical custody “label.” They often say that it is not important. Years ago, the physical custody label had a major impact on the issue of child support and out of state moves. Because of statutory changes, that is no longer the case at all. There is debate in the bar as to what if any legal impact the physical custody label has now that those two considerations have been removed.
A divorce can get complicated if the parties have property (real estate, automobiles, vacation property, pensions, jewelry, etc.) or minor children. Usually, the divorce can be done more quickly if the spouses agree on how to divide the property and handle custody and parenting time with the children. Many cases start out with a lot of disputes, but then the parties are able to reach an agreement. Parties often reach agreement after using alternative dispute resolution (ADR) services outside of court. NOTE: If you feel threatened by or unsafe with the other party, you may want to get legal advice or help from an advocate before using ADR.