In our last post, we covered practical ways to prepare for your first Mediation meeting. These included identifying and defining mutual goals, gathering financial documents, understanding the topics to be addressed, preparing with legal counsel, and setting expectations.
This time, we will discuss what typically goes on during the first Mediation meeting. While each initial session is somewhat different based on the couple involved, there are some generalities that can be expected.
Scope of Mediator’s Involvement
My first contact with a couple considering Mediation is usually by phone or email. I stay very neutral with the party who first reaches out, steering clear of letting him or her explain specifics about this particular situation. This allows me to remain the objective party that I will need to be when working with both spouses later on. Instead, during this first contact I talk about my professional background, how the Mediation process works, how my fees are structured, etc.
When the three of us first meet in person, I review the Mediation contract to be sure all parties are on the same page. We will have already talked about fees and generalities during our initial phone call or email correspondence, but now I will cover more particulars.
It is important that we are clear on what services I do perform versus what I do not or cannot provide. For example, I can help you draft a final divorce agreement, but I cannot produce a qualified domestic relations order to divide your retirement assets. I cannot prepare your taxes, nor can I give you legal advice. You must consult with your own CPA or attorney in these areas. If you are not already working with a tax or legal professional, I can recommend experts with whom I am familiar. I also do not draft any Court documents, except for the divorce agreement (sometimes called a Separation Agreement). The other documents required for Court are forms. You can access them through the Resources page of my website if you want to complete them yourself, or your attorney(s) can complete them for you.
Next, I will need to be brought up to speed as to the details that surround your unique circumstances. I will ask questions like:
- What are the primary issues that have brought you to this point?
- Where do you both live and work?
- What are your individual or combined incomes?
- Describe your assets and/or debt situation.
- What kind of health insurance and life insurance do you have?
- If you have children, what are their ages?
Finding out this kind of information will help me to identify some areas you may not have realized you needed to discuss, such as employee benefits and stock options. We need to bring all of these topics to the table for discussion, even if we eventually determine they are not relevant.
I will also ask about what decisions you have already agreed upon, as well as what outstanding issues are still controversial.
If we have already covered the above topics and there is still time remaining in our first session, we can begin to get into some of the topics that are frequently less understood among couples.
If children are involved, it is crucial to begin discussing what kind of parenting plan each spouse has in mind. I usually start by giving the parameters within which the couple can begin developing their own thoughts. My input here can often seem somewhat overwhelming, but it is important to consider the questions I raise since I have learned over time what often goes wrong. For example, a couple may plan to leave the parenting plan very open, in the sense that either parent can see the children whenever they want. But though well-intentioned, this can often lead to problems down the road. Or one parent may agree that the other can have the kids for a week in the summer, but neither parent has defined what a “week” means. Does it start on Friday night or Monday morning, for instance?
My recommendation is generally to include more detail in the parenting plan than you would normally feel comfortable with. You may agree later to be more loose in your arrangement, but the more formal plan will exist should it be needed as a fallback if problems crop up.
Another often overlooked topic is the continuation of health insurance after a divorce. The goal is to continue health insurance for every member of the family if it is available–but this is not always the case. Of course COBRA is always an available option for 36 months, but that can be very expensive. Our goal is to determine what the least expensive route is. I can bring up keywords and strategic questions you should discuss with your employer or HR department to find out what your options are.
Each meeting is typically a two-hour block, though sessions may be a little shorter or longer depending on the topics being covered. Generally we hold four to six sessions, though this too depends on a couple’s particular needs and progress.
The topics of future meetings are based on issues that we’ve identified. At the end of each meeting, we typically set up the next appointment and talk about homework that needs to be done in the interim.
We continue meeting until it makes sense to draft a final agreement and prepare to go before the Court for approval. I have had some couples who were done with Mediation in a couple of months, meeting every other week, because they were able to quickly address and resolve their issues. I have had others who let months go by in between meetings because they were working through their issues privately, or were perhaps waiting for key pieces of financial information to come through. You really are the ones to determine the timing of the Mediation process (which is a tremendous advantage to going through the Court system).