Academically, professionally, and personally I have spent the last twenty years studying marriage and divorce. Today, I teach mediation, mediate divorces and provide document preparation services. Almost all of my clients have chosen to go through their divorces without attorneys (unrepresented) and they come to us before any paperwork has been filed with the court. It seems that my practice and business model represent an emerging trend.
As I see it, when a couple has children, divorce becomes a process of family restructuring: the marriage ends, but husband and wife remain Mom and Dad, eventually becoming Grandma and Grandpa to the same babies. Contrast this philosophy to the traditional/attorney-driven divorce which often exacerbates a couple’s conflicts, gets the kids entangled in a war zone, diverts a substantial percentage of financial resources to attorneys and others, and brings contempt and hate that keep the former spouses stuck for years to come. How illogical is it for a family to spend its financial wealth on two attorneys whose focus is arguing over dividing whatever is left? Most thinking human being would never choose this path. But, sometimes, when people are emotionally vulnerable and feeling betrayed, rejected, and frightened, their senses leave them and they fall prey to the atrocities of adversarial divorce.
A traditional/attorney-driven divorce is right for some families. This is the way to go when one spouse needs legal protection. So, for example, if one spouse is unaware of what the marital assets are or how much the other spouse earns, s/he may want an attorney to investigate all of these details before agreeing to any financial arrangements. Additionally, if one spouse feels intimidated as the result of domestic violence or coercion, negotiating without a lawyer is a bad idea.
However, many of the couples who end up in a traditional/attorney-driven divorce wouldn’t be there if they knew that another option existed. My mission is to let it be known that there is a better way. And, as I continue to spread the word, my mediation practice has grown. Yes, I am seeing many middle income people struggling financially, unable to afford two retainers and the legal discovery process that is a big part of a traditional/attorney-driven divorce. However, I am also seeing people who have amassed substantial wealth and don’t want to divide it three ways – yours, mine and the lawyers.
Pro-Se/Pre-Suit divorce mediation offers clients a format for communication and a model that promotes problem solving. The unique agreement that a couple creates in mediation serves to guide their family into the future. Typically these agreements cover future parenting plans and how finances (and child support) will be handled after the divorce. Mediation becomes a time for negotiation and opening up the channels of communication. At mediation a couple is encouraged to talk about what is working, what is not working, and how their family should function in the future. My job, as the mediator, is to help my clients identify, articulate and/or re-frame their needs and issues. I foster problem solving, provide information and options, and explore settlement alternatives. Typically, the mediation process takes between two and ten hours, depending on the issues and the personalities involved. Some divorces can be mediated in a single session. And, sometimes the process occurs over a few months time, in a series of face-to-face sessions.
When mediation is complete I prepare the agreement and fill-in the state approved forms. If a couple needs a QDRO (to divide a pension), a deed, or revisions to their estate plan, I refer them to legal resources. Many of my clients take their agreements to attorneys and/or accountants for review prior to signing. Ultimately, the agreement and other documents are signed and filed with the Clerk of the Court, and the case is set for a final hearing as an uncontested dissolution of marriage.