When most people hear the word divorce, they think of court, trial, angry judges, shouting lawyers. And most people are not far off. In reality, divorce can get nasty, long, expensive, and exhausting if you choose to go the traditional route.
Thankfully, there are alternatives to the court divorce model.
What: Mediation is a structured negotiation session where couples discuss and reach agreements on how to divide income and property, arrange custody and parenting time, and allocate debt.
How: A divorcing couple must agree to mediate. You cannot force your spouse to attend mediation. This is a willing process. Once you agree to mediate, you and your spouse pick a mediator. It can be a divorce mediator, a family lawyer who offers mediation services, a financial planner mediator, a mental health mediator, a child specialist mediator, etc. The list of options is long. When picking a mediator, it’s best to choose someone who is most likely to help you with your greatest conflict, be it finances or children or communication. You can hire a Rule 114 Qualified Neutral—a person who has gone through 40-hours of mediation training and paid a licensing fee—or you can chose a trusted family member or friend or acquaintance whom you and your spouse respect and believe would be in a better position to help both of you communicate and negotiate.
Before going to mediation, you may want to speak with a lawyer to learn about your rights, responsibilities, options, and long-term consequences. This way, you are better equipped to brainstorm and discuss settlement options. You can hire a lawyer to attend mediation with you, but it’s optional, and you might want to keep the atmosphere more friendly and less combative. However, before committing and signing off on any agreements, consider consulting a lawyer about the long-term impact of the agreement to make sure you don’t accidentally get yourself into more trouble then it’s worth.
During mediation, you and your spouse can discuss anything. The goal is to communicate your concerns and desires, to understand what and why your spouse wants something, and to reach agreements. The mediator’s role is to facilitate the conversation between the two of you. The mediator does not make any decisions, so there is no need to persuade the mediator or to get the mediator “on your side”.
Once an agreement is reached, you and your spouse can either use a form from the court website to prepare a Joint Divorce Petition or hire a lawyer to draft the document pursuant to your agreement. Then both of you sign it and submit it to the court. A Judge may ask you to show up to a hearing or may sign off on your divorce without any hearing.
When: Mediation is a great alternative when there is no domestic abuse or coercive control, when both of you are on board with getting divorced, when neither of you is feeling particularly vindictive, and when you and your spouse are capable of having a conversation about property and children without focusing on hurt feelings and blaming each other. Mediation is also great when you and your spouse want to save costs, divorce fast, and be completely in control of the outcome and process.
Outcome: If mediation is successful, you and your spouse will have complete control over the terms of your divorce. You will spend money on 1 mediator and potentially 2 lawyers, but the lawyer fees will be limited to legal advice fee, drafting fee, and review fee. A Judge may questions, and potentially change, some of your divorce terms if the agreement is way too lopsided or harms the children, but most people reach fair and reasonable agreements. If mediation is not successful, you can always try divorcing through another alternative way or even the traditional way.
What: Collaborative divorce can be described as premium mediation, mediation+, first-class mediation, full-support mediation, and any other fancy term that indicates that you will be receiving a superior experience that is focused on giving you a greater quality of life both during the divorce and after. It is a team-approach divorce that includes both spouses, a coach, two lawyers, a financial expert, and a child specialist if you have children.
How: You and your spouse must agree to go through the collaborative divorce process. Each of you must hire a lawyer, preferably one who specializes in the collaborative divorce process. You can hire any lawyer, but hiring a lawyer unfamiliar with the process will undermine the effectiveness and benefits of the process. Both of you must agree on and hire a financial expert, a child specialist, and a coach. Obviously, if you don’t have any children, you won’t need a child specialist. If you have very few assets, you might chose to skip the financial expert. If you and your spouse are still great friends, you might forego the coach. Who you hire will depend on what you need.
Once all the team members are hired, you, your spouse, both lawyers, and the coach get together to discuss the goals of the divorce process, the goals of the divorce outcome, the rules and guidelines of the process, and the participation agreement. After the agreement is signed, you and your spouse have meetings with the financial expert and child specialist. If there are conflicts between you and your spouse, you also individually and together meet with the coach as often as necessary to work through and overcome the conflicts. Your lawyers do not attend any of these meetings.
At the financial meetings, the financial expert walks you through multiple financial alternatives based on your assets, needs, concerns, and goals. This way, you are exposed to a variety of different property division and debt allocation options and get to understand the long-term impact of each option. At your meetings with the child specialist, you discuss parenting time options, parenting conflicts, and the children’s needs. Often, the specialist will get to know the children and will work the whole family to improve communication and parenting overall.
After finishing the first round of meetings with the financial expert and child specialist, there is a joint meeting that is attended by both spouses, both lawyers, and all team members in order to discuss all of the options and reach agreements. If you and your spouse agree on all the divorce terms at this meeting, then one of the lawyers prepares a Stipulated Divorce Decree and the second lawyer reviews it to make sure it correctly reflects the agreement reached. Then, the agreement is submitted to court and a Judge signs it. If there are outstanding disagreements, you and your spouse do a second round of meetings with team members and then another joint meeting, and so on until you reach an agreement on everything.
When: Collaborative divorce is a great alternative when you want to establish a good and sustainable life post divorce and when there is no domestic abuse or coercive control in the marriage. Unlike mediation, you don’t need to both be on board with getting a divorce or have good communication skills or even get along. That is what team members are for, particularly the coach.
Outcome: Like in mediation, you will have complete control over the terms of your divorce. However, with collaborative divorce, you will also have financial, legal, parenting, communication, and conflict resolution support. You will have the right professionals advising you in their area of expertise. You won’t just have a facilitator, you will have a team that will work with you to brainstorm ideas, to project those ideas long-term, and to come up with a tailored plan for you, your spouse, and your family.
Couple’s Divorce Therapy
What: Couple’s divorce therapy is like a normal couple’s therapy except that the goal isn’t saving the marriage but rather helping you divorce.
How: You and your spouse agree to attend couple’s divorce therapy, find a therapist who offers this service, and both participate in the therapy. The goal of these session is to help you and your spouse complete your marriage through an intentional divorce. At sessions, you will review your marriage—looking at what brought you together, what you learned from each other, how you’ve helped and hurt the other, and why the marriage can no longer continue—process sadness and grief that is inevitable when a relationship ends, and create a new agreement on how to move forward as coparents, friends, or even just as strangers.
While the focus of couple’s divorce therapy is on the emotional side and not the financial division or parenting schedule, going through the process can help you and your spouse get to a place emotionally where the two of you can reach agreements on those issues at the kitchen table or in a mediation session.
When: Couple’s divorce therapy is a great alternative when there are hurt emotions, when a long or intense marriage ends, when you have children and will have to interact with each other post divorce, when you want closure and not just a signed document. It’s possible that a couple’s divorce therapy is all you will need to get to a place to agree on the terms of your divorce without further intervention, but you might also need to do mediation or collaborative divorce in addition to the therapy. If there is domestic abuse or coercive control in the marriage, this therapy can actually do more harm than good, so if that is you, it might be best to do individual therapy along with a traditional divorce.
Outcome: If successful, you and your spouse will be able to walk away from the marriage more grateful for the experience, more appreciative of each other, less hurt, less angry, more secure about the future. You will learn the tools that you’ll need to interact with each other moving forward. You will have a sense of closure.