One goal of divorce mediation is to help save money on the divorce process. Another goal is to help the parties control the outcome of their case. By mediating your case you will likely be able to reach a settlement and avoid having a trial where the judge decides your case. Trials are expensive, time consuming and stressful. It takes month, sometimes even years, for cases to get to trial after the lawsuit is settled. And then, when you do get to trial, each side presents a few hours of testimony and the judge makes a decision that will impact the rest of the parties’ lives. As a result, all good divorce lawyers know that it is best to keep cases out of court whenever possible.
With those two goals – saving money and controlling the outcome – in mind, you should do whatever you can to get the most out of your divorce mediation session. So today I want to offer three tips that can help make a big difference in the process.
Tip # 1: Be prepared to mediate. This may sound obvious, but I have been involved with many mediations where one – or both – sides haven’t even looked at the case before they get to the mediator’s office. In a typical divorce case involving financial issues there are many documents that will need to be exchanged. Some attorneys tend to use the mediation session as the time to review those documents and put together a plan. In fact, the time to do that is well before you set foot in the mediator’s office. If you want until the mediation to come up with a plan you are spending more time and money than necessary and, most likely, you’re aggravating the other side and making it much harder to settle.
If your lawyer tells you that there are documents that need to be exchanged, get those documents to him or her well in advance of the mediation. If your lawyer wants to meet with you to prepare, make that meeting a priority. Anything you can do to ensure that both sides have all necessary information before you come to my office will help the mediation process go more smoothly and efficiently.
Tip # 2: Be prepared to compromise. Many people seem to have the idea that negotiation means you get your way and the other side gives in. That’s not how it works. In order for mediation to be successful, both parties will need to make some concessions.
That’s not to say, however, that you need to give up all of your points. Prior to the mediation you should prioritize the issues to figure out what’s most important to you. For example, an alimony case involves both the amount of the monthly payment and the length of time the alimony will last. If you have to choose, is it more important for you to get a higher monthly amount for a shorter time or a lower amount for a longer time? In an equitable distribution case you may have to decide whether you want to keep the home – and the equity in the home – or whether you would like more of the retirement accounts.
It is often said that if both parties are unhappy with the settlement then it’s probably fair. I think a better approach is to say that the agreement is fair if both parties feel it’s fair. If you plan ahead of time to decide which issues are most important to you, you will be much more likely to walk out of the mediation session with an agreement that you think is fair.
Tip # 3: Be prepared to commit. The goal of the mediation session is to reach an agreement. In my opinion, a successful mediation session ends with the parties having fully resolved all issues. That outcome is only possible, though, if both sides are ready to make a commitment on the day of mediation.
My experience is that, almost 100% of the time, if a firm agreement is not reached the day of mediation then one or both sides will change their mind after they leave the mediator’s office. That can cause a deal that is reasonable for both parties to fall apart. It can also cost the parties thousands of dollars in additional legal fees to get back to the same agreement months or years down the road. If an agreement was fair on the day of mediation then it should be fair a day later, a week later or a month later. Once you’ve reached an agreement that you can live with, commit to it. If you’re too concerned with wanting to sleep on it or think about it for a couple of days before you sign anything, then you’re likely to lose the deal.
Did you notice that all of the tips we’ve discussed today involve the words “be prepared?” That’s because the key to a successful mediation is adequate preparation. While mediation can sound like an intimidating process, if you’ll follow those three tips and come to the mediation prepared you will greatly increase the odds of a reaching a settlement that you can feel good about.