Once you have decided that mediation is the right course for you and your spouse is on board, it is time to begin preparing for your first mediation meeting – which could be as soon as next week or as far out as a couple of months, depending on your timetable.
Prior to our first meeting, I have usually spoken to at least one spouse by phone or communicated via email. Technically I am hired as the neutral party by both spouses, and so I encourage the other spouse to speak with me as well prior to our first meeting (although this occurs only about a third of the time – I wish it happened more!). During these preliminary phone calls, I do not want to know any specifics or details about your particular case. I deal only with generalities, such as how the process works, fees, etc. This way I maintain my neutrality and neither party should be concerned that I have been “swayed” by the other.
Identify and Define Goals
Most people enter mediation with a goal to make the transition to divorce as smooth as possible for everybody involved (including children if applicable), and to allocate finances in the best possible way so that everyone is treated fairly and taken care of appropriately.
I encourage both individuals to think this through thoroughly prior to our face-to-face meeting, so that they are both clear about what is important to them in terms of outcome and process. Hopefully they share a common goal, such as causing the least amount of hurt by avoiding an adversarial tone if possible. Ideally, most couples intend to stay friendly (or at least civil) so they can continue to work together down the road, especially for the sake of any children involved. It is much better for a couple to work together to decide the outcome of what they want the future to look like, rather than leaving that up to a judge to decide.
Gather Financial Documents
If you are looking for practical steps you can take to prepare for mediation, this is the most helpful area. Begin by gathering your most recent statements for both assets (such as investments) and debts (such as mortgage papers). Bring these to the meeting. Once I become more familiar with the specifics of your case, I may request additional documents as well – such as stock options, if they exist. We may need to have an asset valued or a tax analysis done as well.
It is often a good idea to begin filling out the court forms ahead of time. These forms can be overwhelming, so starting early can help ease some of the burden. Even if the forms are not completed by the time we meet, it will give you a chance to begin focusing specifically on your finances, so you know what shape you are in and what questions to ask when we get together. I would encourage you to bring a draft of whatever you have prepared, so we have a place to start.
Links to various court forms can be found on the Resources page. They include: Uncontested Divorce Court Forms, Financial Statement (both short and long forms), Financial Statement Schedule A (self-employment) and Schedule B (rental income), and a Child Support Guidelines Worksheet.
Understand What Topics We Will Address
It may be helpful for you to know in advance what topics will be up for discussion in our first session. Generally we will cover most, if not all, of these issues:
- Asset and debt allocation (including real estate, retirement, investments, etc.)
- Support (potential alimony or child support)
- Health insurance and uninsured medical expenses
- Income tax issues
- Child-related topics (parenting plans, college, etc.), if pertinent
- Life insurance obligations
Prepare with Legal Counsel
I strongly encourage both spouses to consult with their own attorneys throughout the mediation process, although my advice is not always taken. If either party does have a lawyer, it is important that s/he is caught up to speed with any and all developments, and consulted during the preparation stage if any questions should arise.
I generally work in two-hour blocks, though sessions may be a little shorter or longer depending on circumstances. This gives us enough time to get some serious work done without getting too exhausted. The number of sessions depends on the individuals’ needs and progress, though the average is usually four to six two-hour sessions. The time lapse between sessions is up to the couple and varies tremendously due to vacation or work schedules, children’s activities, interim consultations with other professionals (such as a financial advisor), or the need to adequately process emotionally or mentally between meetings. Remember that the ability to control the timing is something you lose once you become enmeshed in the Court process, so it is another advantage of mediation.
It is important to note that what I have indicated above is simply my personal process, which I customize to some extent for each client. Every mediator approaches the process in a slightly different manner.
In the next post, we will cover what to expect in your first meeting.