You did your homework, researched your options, and can now say with certainty mediation is the way you and your spouse wish to pursue your uncontested divorce.
You obviously know that involving lawyers in your divorce negotiations can cause irreversible damage to you and your children now and for the rest of your lives.
And you’re not willing to gamble with your future.
But while choosing mediation for divorce is a wise decision and an excellent first step, there’s something else you need to do in order to ensure your divorce goes smoothly:
You need to hire the right divorce mediator.
Because there's just too much at stake.
And the wrong mediator can ruin your divorce!
The mediator you hire will play a critical role in:
How peaceful your divorce will be;
Whether or not your agreement will be focused on the needs of your children;
How fair and equitable your agreement will be;
How well your divorce will go from a financial standpoint;
And whether or not you'll need to spend time and money in the future to address an unresolved issue or fix a mistake made at the time of your divorce.
Mediation is an unregulated profession. And there's a big difference between a basic mediator and a highly skilled expert!
In this post I'll share:
What it means to have a high quality divorce mediation;
The differences between a basic mediator and an expert divorce mediator;
Why choosing Equitable Mediation is the single most important thing you can do to ensure the success of your divorce negotiations.
Ready to dive in?
What is a Successful Divorce Mediation?
Joe and I strongly believe there are five characteristics of a high quality divorce mediation:
Your mediation is peaceful from start to finish;
Your agreement is thorough and will stand the test of time;
Your agreement prioritizes the needs of your children, meaning it's child-focused;
The terms are fair and equitable to both you and your spouse;
Your divorce is cost-effective.
Let’s take a closer look at each of these and discuss how we can help you get the high quality and successful mediation you want, need and deserve.
A High Quality Mediation is Peaceful.
There’s no question that going through a divorce is one of the single most stressful events you will ever experience.
Experts say it runs second in stress only to the death of a loved one or parent.
But that doesn’t mean you have to add to that stress by engaging in highly contentious divorce negotiations. Doing so is not only detrimental to your physical and mental health, but will also prevent you from making the sound and rational decisions necessary to successfully complete your divorce negotiations and secure your financial future.
So in order to have a high quality mediation, you need to make sure your divorce negotiations are peaceful from start to finish.
If a mediation session gets out of hand because the neutral third party mediator you’re working with really isn't neutral, or doesn’t have the experience to manage the unique interpersonal dynamic between you and your spouse, you’re going to spend a lot of extra (and unnecessary) time and money in mediation trying to resolve your issues.
Or worse yet, your mediation will fall apart and you'll find yourselves hiring divorce attorneys and litigating instead.
Working with my partner, Equitable Mediation's founder and expert divorce mediator Joe Dillon, will ensure that your mediation sessions are conducted in an environment of mutual respect and dignity. There’s no room for name calling, verbal abuse, or bullying, when working with Joe.
Joe knows how to effectively manage varying interpersonal dynamics, will make sure you and your spouse are each heard and validated, and help keep your proceedings from going sideways.
He may even help improve communications between you and your spouse. Which is especially critical if you have children and want to be great co-parents after your divorce is finalized.
Having a peaceful divorce mediation process leads to a number of other positive benefits as well.
Couples who negotiate in an environment of mutual respect and dignity create agreements that are more likely to be fair and equitable, thorough, cost-effective and child-focused.
All components of a high quality divorce mediation.
Guess you can see why peaceful is listed first!
A Successful Divorce Mediation is Thorough
When you and your spouse got married, in addition to the romantic bond you created, you also created a legal bond.
This bond allowed you to accumulate joint property and debts, file income taxes together and become co-legal guardians of any children you had together.
Who knew those two simple words “I do” would weave such a tangled web?!
Now that you’re seeking a divorce, you and your spouse will need to create a highly complex agreement that outlines in great detail how your financial and parental responsibilities will be handled moving forward.
So in order to have a successful mediation, you need to make sure your divorce agreement is thorough.
There are three components that make up a thorough agreement:
The first is ensuring the four main topics of divorce (parenting plan, child support, alimony and division of marital assets and liabilities are not only addressed, but that they are addressed comprehensively.
To demonstrate what that means, consider this example:
Beth and Mike were a divorcing interfaith couple – Beth was Jewish and Mike was Catholic. They were relatively civil to each other and before starting divorce mediation, had some discussions about their parenting plan and thought they had it “all worked out.”
They decided the kids would spend their time equally between each parent’s residence.
Beth and Mike just wanted to get the divorce over and done with as quickly as possible.
A basic mediator may have been satisfied with the arrangement the two parents made with regard to timesharing and let it go at that.
But a highly skilled expert mediator like Joe knows to ask more questions...
What if Beth kept kosher but Mike, her soon-to-be-ex didn’t? How that would be handled since the kids were going to spend 50% of their time at Mike’s place?
What religion or religions would the kids be raised following? What holidays would the children observe? And what would happen if down the road they want to convert from one parent’s religion to the other?
What if they were being raised Jewish? Could the kids put up a Christmas tree in dad’s house? Open Christmas gifts? Go to Christmas dinner at dad’s family’s house?
Joe knows there’s a lot more ground to cover beyond just the number of nights and weekends the kids will be sleeping at a particular parent’s house.
He takes the time to ask the questions you and your spouse don’t even know need asking in order to create a comprehensive parenting plan that works for your family.
Next are the myriad of other issues that are not a standard part of the four main topics previously mentioned.
Issues surrounding taxation and tax optimization, support modification, relocation, cohabitation - the list goes on and on...
Most mediators either skimp on details about these matters or don’t address them at all. Leading to problems down the road when something comes up and your agreement offers no guidance on what to do in that particular situation.
Joe will help you avoid all of that by ensuring that all basic as well as not-so-basic issues are addressed and clearly spelled out in your divorce agreement.
Finally, you’ll want to make sure your agreement will stand the test of time because guess what?
Kids grow up. People move. Sell houses.
Most mediators don’t do much in the way of addressing known or potential future issues.
They simply address the issues that are in front of them at the time and nothing more. They may add language that says the parties agree to “work it out” should something change in the future, but that’s about it.
On the other hand, Joe will craft language that spells out what to do now, as well as in the short, medium and long-term future as your circumstances change.
What if you have young children?
Just because they’re not ready to go to college at this moment, are you just going to leave how their college tuition will be paid for out of your agreement?
What if you are looking to re-enter the workforce after a long absence and both child support and alimony will need to be adjusted once you do?
What if you are divorcing with a business involved and/or you have income that is at-risk or variable, such as with bonuses or commissions? How will you handle child support and alimony when your income isn't consistent from month-to-month or year-to-year?
Do you really want to have to revisit these issues once your divorce is final? Or would you prefer to turn to a page in your agreement, look at what it says and follow the new guidelines that are already laid out for you?
A thorough agreement benefits you by ensuring that not only are known issues covered, but as many potential future issues as possible are covered as well.
Saving you time, money and the stress of having to return to mediation – or worse yet, court – to try to resolve these things - 5, 10 or 15 years down the road.
A High Quality Divorce Mediation is Child-Focused
If you have minor children, in order to have a high quality divorce mediation, you need to ensure your agreement is child-focused.
A child-focused agreement is one that puts the needs of your children above your own when it comes to matters of time sharing and financial support.
Certainly most mediators can help you devise a basic parenting plan and calculate a minimum amount of child support. But a skilled mediator like Joe can make all the difference between having an ordinary agreement and a truly child-focused one.
For example, a basic time sharing plan might have the kids spending school nights and every other weekend with mom and the other weekend with dad.
This type of plan has been in existence since the dawn of time and is the “go to” default for many mediators. If they’re trying to be creative, maybe some will throw in a night during the week to make 10 out of 14 days with mom and four out of 14 with dad.
Now if you’re mom in this example and your goal is to spend as much time with the kids as you can, you might think this is a great plan for you.
But is it really OK that your children are only going to see their father 14% to 28% of the time?
I'm sure you know that’s probably not in your children’s best interests.
Joe will offer creative solutions for time sharing arrangements that have each of you seeing the kids as much as possible. While minimizing the damage that constant switching from house-to-house can do to your kids, especially if they’re younger children.
Then there’s the issue of financial support and state-specific child support guidelines.
There are some real bombshells when it comes to child support.
Not only that, but the child support guidelines are only recommendations in many states and can be increased if the children's needs aren't being met.
Most mediators will run the guidelines, tell you the minimum amount it recommends and that’s that. Their assumption is that the minimum recommendation is “fine” for your children, you are an “average” family and the government knows what’s better for your children than you do.
But Joe will work with you to come to an amount that takes into account your children’s unique needs and lifestyle.
And prevents your children from becoming the economic victims of divorce.
He will also help you understand in great detail what’s included and what’s not included in child support – because there’s a lot left out of the guidelines.
Some states only take into account basic items such as food, shelter and personal care but do not take into account items such as: daycare, summer camp, car insurance, cell phone plans, back-to-school shopping, most medical expenses, and college, among others.
Children are often the innocent victims of divorce. They didn’t ask for their world to be turned upside down or their financial security to be put in jeopardy. So bouncing them back and forth between houses and following the state mandated minimums for child support is no way to create a child-focused agreement.
Working with Equitable Mediation to craft a child-focused agreement will go a long way towards making sure your kids grow up happy, supported and well-adjusted.
Your kids deserve it!
A High Quality Divorce Mediation is Fair and Equitable
As you’re learning, in a divorce there are very few specifics around many of the topics that you and your spouse will need to resolve.
This is especially true in the areas of alimony (also referred to as spousal support, maintenance, or spousal maintenance, depending on the state you live in) and the division of your marital assets and liabilities (also referred to as equitable distribution or community property, depending on the state you live in).
Yet one of the hallmarks of a high quality divorce mediation is coming to a fair and equitable agreement.
So how can you reconcile the lack of guidance provided by many states with the ability to come to an agreement you both agree is fair and equitable when it’s unclear what that even means in the first place?
Take for example the much maligned and highly controversial topic of alimony.
In many states, there is no guideline or model to calculate it. And even in states where there are guidelines or pre-determined formulas, there are situations where they will not apply, cannot be used and/or create new problems.
So regardless of the state you live in, determining a fair amount can prove quite difficult for most couples and quite frankly, most mediators.
Not only do you need to agree on an amount, but you also have to agree on the duration as well.
As you can imagine, the spouse who is paying support wants the amount and duration to be as low and short as possible and the spouse who is receiving spousal support wants it to be as high and for as long as possible.
Most basic mediators will ask both of you what amount and duration you want to agree on. But my guess is that if you knew the answer to that question, you wouldn’t need the help of a divorce mediator in the first place!
On the other hand, a highly skilled mediator like Joe will work with you and your spouse to balance both of your needs post-divorce as well as consider your incomes, ages, earning potential, education levels, and tax brackets among many other things. To help you come to a fair and equitable amount and duration of support based on your unique situation.
He'll also share creative alternatives to the traditional “check in the mail” approach that most basic mediators use.
Lump sum buyouts or exchanging assets for support to name a few are in Joe's tool belt…
Especially because Joe has an MBA in finance, which is extremely beneficial when it comes to settling matters of money and property in divorce.
Then there’s division of marital assets and debts.
How do you reach a fair agreement if each of you have a different definition of what’s fair?
Is fair 50-50?
Some other permutation?
What if you want to stay in the house and you know it’s the biggest asset you have? How is that going to be interpreted as fair by your soon-to-be-ex-spouse?
Even if “on paper” some assets appear to be equal in value, they’re typically not.
The tax implications of each asset, the liquidity of each asset, the cost-basis and tax gain or loss are many of the factors that come into play in determining whether two assets are worth the same thing.
You may have a case of apples and oranges even though on paper they both may look like apples!
How about dividing 401(k) plans and / or valuing complex financial instruments like pensions?
Oh, and don’t forget the necessary paperwork that must be prepared and language that must be drafted into your divorce agreement in order to avoid any penalties or nasty tax surprises down the road.
One slip up by a basic mediator and you could find yourself the recipient of a letter from Uncle Sam asking for his share of those 401(k) proceeds you got as part of your divorce settlement from your now ex-spouse.
The bottom line is that when it comes to things like support and equitable distribution, there’s a lot of room for error, interpretation and chances for one party to get the short end of the stick.
Working with a highly skilled mediator like Joe is the best way to create an agreement that is fair and equitable and avoids these pitfalls.
And allows both of you to move forward without regret.
A High Quality Divorce Mediation is Cost-Effective
As you’ve been learning, there’s a lot of work that goes into a divorce.
It’s a complex process with lots of moving parts, and literally hundreds of decisions that need to be made in order to have a thorough agreement and high quality mediation.
And while a high quality mediation is far less expensive than hiring two family law attorneys, it is by no means a cheap divorce like you see on those billboards that scream:
$399 for a complete divorce solution! Call our divorce center today!
Yikes! No thank you…
But a high quality divorce mediation is cost-effective.
Mediation services can vary greatly in terms of their thoroughness and there are two things you need to know about what makes one divorce mediation more cost-effective than another. And surprisingly, neither has anything to do with the hourly rate of the mediator.
First is the thoroughness of the divorce mediation services, negotiations and process.
As you’ve learned, most mediators can cover the basics and help you and your spouse come to agreements.
But often times, the negotiations are incomplete or unclear.
Either a topic wasn’t properly or thoroughly discussed in session (or at all) or agreements were, in fact, reached, but were not written up clearly in the paperwork so they do not make a whole lot of sense when read at a later date.
If this happens and you run into an issue in the future that either wasn’t covered or needs clarification, what will you do?
You’ll either wind up arguing with each other or worse yet…
You’ll find yourself in court.
But if you work with Equitable Mediation, you can avoid all of that.
Joe drafts an extremely thorough agreement and covers a myriad of potential issues that may not even be on your radar at the time of your mediation.
He knows that while it may seem unlikely to you or your spouse at the time of your divorce that one or more of these scenarios will ever happen, it’s better to discuss them now and agree on solutions rather than leave them to chance for the two of you to figure out on your own or in court, later.
So if you do encounter a change in your future circumstances, you’ll be able to simply open up your Memorandum of Understanding, turn to the appropriate section, and review the decisions and agreements made at the time of your divorce.
No fighting, no hiring lawyers, no going back to court.
Saving you both time, money and an awful lot of stress.
Second is the thoroughness of the drafted agreement.
For example, after you’ve completed your discussions and come to your agreements, some mediators will prepare a basic term sheet to outline the things you agreed upon in session.
Unfortunately, the term sheet will need to be reviewed and rewritten by an attorney (at a cost of a few thousand dollars.) Adding in the necessary language and clarifying details to ensure your agreement’s intentions are clear and easy to follow.
But if you’re like most couples, you’re probably seeking the services of a mediator because you want to avoid the use of attorneys in your divorce negotiations and save the added expense.
On the other hand, a highly skilled expert like Joe will draft a comprehensive Memorandum of Understanding as part of his normal process which outlines in great detail all agreements made during your mediation.
This way, you and your spouse will know exactly what you both agreed to.
No need to spend more time and an additional few thousand dollars to have your agreement re-written by an attorney (unless, of course, you choose to.)
Our comprehensive process and services will save you money.
And the thoroughly written agreement Joe will draft will stand the test of time and save you money and stress in the future.
And if you don't live in a state where we practice, here's how to know if a divorce mediator you're considering is highly-skilled...
You’ve now learned how critical it is to get a high quality divorce mediation. And that a high quality divorce mediation is dependent on choosing a highly skilled divorce mediator.
But now you’re probably wondering how to know what questions you should ask a potential mediator in order to determine if they are, in fact, highly skilled.
The truth is finding highly skilled mediators can be quite a challenge.
First, due to confidentiality, it’s difficult (if not impossible) to get references. What if you got a call out of the blue one day from someone who wanted to ask you questions about the person who mediated your divorce?
You’d probably be pretty upset, already having put your painful past behind you.
And since there aren’t many people who are willing to go on Yelp or Angie’s List and write a review about their mediator and discuss the details of their divorce, that’s not going to be a viable option for determining if the mediator you’re considering working with is highly skilled.
Choosing a mediator isn’t like choosing a restaurant!
Finally, most times you won’t know if you worked with a highly skilled mediator until your mediation is over, or it’s years in the future and you just found out there is something missing in your agreement.
So what can you do?
Learn more about the mediator’s background, training and experience, specifically in divorce mediation.
Find out how long they’ve been practicing and whether or not they mediate full-time. And what they do to stay on top of their ever-changing profession.
Find out if the mediator has a financial background because three of the four main areas of a divorce are financial in nature.
Ask about their success rate. Meaning – how many of their clients were able to come to agreement in mediation and not wind up resorting to litigation? A highly skilled mediator should be able to successfully settle at least 90%-95% of their cases.
Also as you’ve already learned, not all services provided by mediators are the same. So find out about the scope of services the mediator offers and the associated fees.
Find out if there are any hidden or extra fees you’ll need to pay in order to complete your divorce. Just because one mediator’s fees may appear to be higher than another, it’s not always the case. And it doesn’t mean you should necessarily pick the mediator who’s cheaper.
Equitable Mediation co-founder Cheryl Dillon is passionate about helping couples attain a peaceful, fair and cost-effective divorce while putting their children first. When she’s not supporting her clients through the emotional aspects of this significant life transition, you can find her trying to stick to an exercise program, practicing her singing lessons, tending to her garden, watching Cubs baseball, and trying to persuade Joe to adopt 5 or 10 more dogs.