Cynthia M. Fox, November 2009
One of the hardest things about divorce is its cost, not just emotionally and psychologically, but in cold hard cash. A typical scenario is a husband, wife and two attorneys. Add the expense of outside experts if there are disputes over who can better parent their children or the valuation of an asset such as a business that one or both owns, and the bottom line is fees well into five figures for each party.
However, in my experience, anger and contentiousness drives up the cost more than any other factor. More anger equals more destruction, cutting deeply into the wealth and well-being of both parties. Deeply hurt litigants file too many motions, push issues beyond reason, are unable to compromise, and often are so damaged that they emote endlessly in the lawyer’s office. The result: very large legal bills that anger them even more.
All of this has led me to develop a new approach that I describe as the ConstructiveDivorce®, which attempts to reduce the emotional and financial costs of divorce and help my clients prepare for and get onto the next stage of their life. Helping people resolve their conflicts more constructively is also why I trained to become a certified mediator.
Any couple heading for divorce can go to mediation, even if they have already hired attorneys and started down the more adversarial path. In mediation, the wife and husband meet together with the mediator, and with his/her assistance, prepare the final settlement agreement that the Family Court requires in order to grant them a divorce. This agreement typically deals with the division of the property, parenting plans for the children, assigning custody and visitation rights, as well as addressing child support or spousal maintenance needs. Understandably, resolving these questions can be stressful and difficult, particularly for estranged couples.
The mediator is a like a “tour director” identifying all the stops along the way, providing knowledge and insights, while making sure each person gets what they need with a minimum of friction. And, while no one would say getting a divorce is like taking a vacation, in the hands of a skillful mediator, the excursion can be both liberating and empowering. That’s because each party is encouraged to be totally open about what they feel, believe and expect about the end of their marriage with the mediator there to support and buffer them. The mediator’s job is not to allow the strain of these painful topics keep the parties from getting to the finish line.
I believe couples that mediate the end of their marriage “own” their divorce in ways that provide a clean break with the past and allow them to get on with their lives. They also save a boatload of money. In most situations, no attorneys are needed until the settlement agreement is completed, and then one or both parties will usually retain a lawyer to take the agreement to the court for its approval. However, in St. Louis County, even these costs can be avoided through the use of the Resource Center (also known as the “pro se clinic”), which assists couples without representation file their settlement agreements with the court at no cost.
Divorce mediators are not always family lawyers, but the advantage of a family lawyer-mediator like myself is that we are more likely to know everything that is required to prepare a settlement agreement acceptable to the court. Also, a lawyer-mediator can provide “legal information” (but not legal advice) to the parties that can help both understand the potential implications of the various parts of the agreement they are constructing.