This holiday season I am thankful for my community- the family law attorneys and divorcing clients who choose to mediate instead of letting the courts decide their future. Divorcing clients often find themselves feeling overwhelmed and drained as they are forced to make major life decisions during an emotionally charged time. By settling in mediation, the divorce process becomes less adversarial than ongoing litigation. A mediated settlement in a family case is a gift the parties give themselves and continue to give themselves long after the divorce is over.
Mediation is the most rewarding work I had ever done in my career. Often, after the divorce is long finished, I receive many telephone calls and emails thanking me for helping keep former clients out of litigation. THIS is the way most divorces should end- with mediation.
My business model encourages dialogue so a couple can ease heartache and stress, work together to conserve their resources, protect their children, and move forward towards a divorce so could both move on to their next phase of their lives. Some couples go through this process without attorneys, some couples will use attorneys and financial experts as consultants.
When clients ask whether they really need to hire a lawyer or a mediator, I explain the different—but complementary—roles played by each professional. The lawyer’s job is to look at the entire situation and advocate for and explain to the client their respective rights and obligations. The lawyer is the captain of the ship in terms of legal strategy. An experienced mediator who has expertise outside the law, is important to the settlement. The mediator does not dictate how the case should proceed.The law has its place in settling cases in family law but for the majority of couples, divorce is not one of the situations where a courtroom trial will usually result in the most optimal outcome.
The problem-solving philosophy of a mediation differs from the tenets of adversarial divorce. Collaborative or traditional attorney-driven divorces are right for some families. This is the way to go if one of the spouses needs legal protection. For example, if one of the parties is unaware of what the marital assets are or how much the other spouse earns, he or she may want a divorce attorney to investigate all of these details before agreeing to any financial arrangements. Additionally, if one of the parties feel intimidated as the result of domestic violence or coercion, negotiating without a divorce lawyer is a bad idea. On the other hand, when people are emotionally vulnerable and feeling betrayed, rejected, and frightened, it’s easy to fall into the downward spiral of acontentious divorce. And, so many couples are poorly served by a legal process that treats divorce, which is really a major life transition, as if it was just another lawsuit.
Unfortunately, some spouses are either not emotionally stable enough to mediate or one of the hundreds of thousands of undiagnosed personality disorders that make cooperation impossible. For those individuals, they have no choice but to litigate and let the judge decide the outcome of their case. When that’s the case, there are many attorneys that are settlement minded, will refrain from meaningless motions, appeals, and antagonistic language and are committed to facilitate a settlement. They are out there, and I enjoy supporting them and their clients.
My mediation practice is unique in that I mediate for couples with and without attorneys. In Florida, the presiding judge will send the parties in family matters to mediation prior to certain hearings and trial. Depending on the judge, often cases are sent to mediation multiple times during litigation.
Mediation is popular with the courts because the judicial system simply doesn’t have the resources to hear every issue in every case and because the judicial system simply prefers not to make decisions relating to children and finances if they don’t have to. Nobody knows their family and finances better than the clients themselves not to mention the high price tag of a trial.
The courts only usher the couple through the legal aspect of the divorce. When the other issues of life remain unaddressed during divorce they can cloud reality and foster unrealistic expectations for the parties about what the courts can do.
Family law attorneys systematically embrace mediation to facilitate settlements for clients that are fair, educated and consistent with the law. Often the outcome of a costly trial is a complete roll of the dice. So many of the family law statutes are vague and open to wide interpretation by judges that outcomes become unpredictable. Alternative methods of dispute resolution ensure that control stays in the hands of the couple making decisions about their lives.
The purpose of meditation in divorce and other family matters is simply to attempt to broker an agreement with the divorcing couple regarding some, if not all, of the issues in a divorce. Mediation allows the divorce couples to resolve temporary and permanent issues. In the best cases, the parties enter divorce mediation and get a global settlement. That means all issues are permanently resolved. When this happens in a mediation, the mediator with the help of their attorneys, if they are represented, will start boiling down the agreement. As Florida’s a contract state, if all the issues are resolved and signed off on by the parties, then in the majority of cases all that’s left to do is to take the agreement to the judge and have the judge sign off on everything and finalize the divorce.
Not only should divorcing couples try mediation, but also almost all counties in Florida will require the parties to try divorce mediation before coming in front of the judge to litigate their disputes. In the Miami Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, all have standing orders requiring the parties to try divorce mediation before going in front of the judge and asking for help. There are some exceptions to this general rule. For example, cases of domestic violence may be best served to proceed right to the judge without going into mediation. While some divorce cases can resolve themselves at any time among the lawyers or even among the parties, most settle in a divorce mediation settlement conference.
After a mediatedsettlement is negotiated and agreed to, the marital settlement agreement is drafted. The parties do not rely on any statements or opinions in connection with the execution of their agreement or receive any legal counsel from the mediator even if the mediator helped draft the document. If the parties are unrepresented, they are both given an opportunity to consult with an attorney to review the document and recommend changes, before the parties finalize and execute their agreement.