Monday, December 28, 2009

Timing of Divorce Filings & Finalizing at Year End

At the end of the year, many family law attorneys are busier than usual, often working around the clock to help their clients finalize their divorces before the end of the year. As a divorce mediator, this is particularly true because the couple is working together and are making decisions together - including when to finalize their divorce.
I typically see just a few reasons a couple would want to finalize their divorce by December 31. And, in the last few years, the San Francisco court has required that judgment documents be submitted by the end of November in order to have a 2009 divorce date. This year, they are allowing filings up until December 31, which has given a little more flexibility for divorcing couples to have their cases finalized in 2009. Here are the reasons we work to get our clients cases finalized by year end:

Taxes: A couples' tax filing status is determined by their marital status on the last day of the tax year. This means that if a divorcing couple is divorced by December 31they will not be filing "married, joint" or "married, separate" but will be filing as a single individual or as head of household. How this impacts an individual or couple will be based on many things (i.e., income, losses, deductions, etc.) but a change in tax filing status can often mean a difference of thousands of dollars.

Symbolic/Emotional: There are many steps in the divorce process which are important legally or financially and others that are important on a more emotional level. It is often the case that individuals who have done the hard work to get through the details of their divorce settlement and co-parenting agreement throughout the year would like to put an end to that chapter in their lives and starting the new year as a single individual is one way an individual can make a fresh start with a clean slate for the new year.

Health Insurance Benefits: While not necessarily tied to the end of the year, determining when the divorce is going to be final will have an impact on when a spouse is no longer eligible to remain covered under the health insurance policies of his/her spouse's policies. Knowing how health benefits are tied to marital status and knowing whether and how to extend the duration of health benefits can be useful in a divorce settlement.

Re-financing: Again, this is not tied to the end of year, but when a refinance of property is a key component of a divorce settlement, there are timing issues which we need to be aware of so that the fully signed Marital Settlement Agreement can be provided to the bank to confirm the agreements affecting the property. The banks are not always sure of the exact information they need, but having worked with many, many couples who are refinancing their houses to buy out the other spouse's ownership interest, most banks need the fully signed Marital Settlement Agreement, which is the document that gets filed with the court after agreements have been reached on all custody, support and financial division issues.

Every case is unique, with a wide variety of reasons for both the begining and the end of the marriage. The reasons for finalizing at a certain time are usually limited to taxes, emotions, health benefits or financing options, all of which are related to the separation of the financial entanglements that come with marriage and are sorted through in cases of divorce.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Mediators With "Issues"

I was recently asked how mediators are able to keep their own "issues" out of the mediation and my answer is that I don't think they can. If a mediator is impatient or demanding or self-absorbed, how would that not come through and influence the mediation process? On the other hand, if a mediator is naturally a good and patient listener who is intuitive and can easily sympathize with many different types of people in various circumstances, that will also come into play in the mediation.

People who are in a mediation, regardless of the type of case being mediated, need to feel that they are being heard, that their needs and interests are being acknowledged and factored into the final resulting settlement. If a mediating party feels like the mediator is impatient, cuts him/her off or is dismissive of something that was raised as a concern, how is that party going to feel like the process worked to meet his/her goals?

When parties agree to mediate, they still want to feel like someone heard their side of the story and gets where they're coming from. I don't believe that mediators can "fake it" and have a client feel like they're understood if the mediator doesn't truly care or understand that party's point of view. If we have biases or judgments that prevent us from getting below the surface and figuring out where the client is coming from, and helping to communicate that to the other party, I think we are not doing our best work.

As mediators, just as in any profession, our personal history, background, personality and yes, "issues," influence our work. But maybe more so as mediators than in certain other professions, we need to continue to do work on ourselves to be the best that we can be as mediators dealing with sensitive disputes.

As we work to balance power dynamics, create a safe and trusting environment for open discussions and work to ensure that the goals and concerns of our clients are met, we need to be able to be present, focused and aware of unspoken concerns or hints and clues about what is going on below the surface of the conversation. If we are consumed by our own "issues" or biases, or unaware of (or unconcerned about) the difficulty of the situation for our clients, our clients will not be as satisfied with the process because they will not feel "heard" because, in fact, they will not have been.

Monday, October 19, 2009

"Divorce is no longer one size fits all"

The San Diego News Network is featuring a Family Law blog series sponsored by San Diego family lawyer Garrison "Bud" Klueck which includes in Part I of the series:
"A good way to remember the various options that divorcing couples have is summarized in a little poem:

Litigation, mediation or collaborative law,
Divorce is no longer, one size fits all."

Part II of the series discusses various models of divorce mediation and is worth reading to understand the different ways in which attorneys, mediators and other professionals might be involved in mediation. I have included an excerpt below or click here for the full article.

Mediation is probably the most popular form of alternative dispute resolution or “ADR.” Mediation uses a neutral that assists the parties in coming to resolution of whatever disputes are between them. But unlike other neutrals, like judges or arbitrators, the mediator does not make the decision. The parties make the decision. The method, therefore, is very empowering to the people who use it. The mediator uses his or her skills, training and experience to assist the parties in coming to a productive resolution of their disputes.

In family law, there are four “models of mediation.” There is a “three-person model,” “a five-person model,” “a three-person plus model” and a “four-person model.”
The three-person model is the simplest and most popular. In the room are just the mediator/neutral and the two parties. Because the mediator is a neutral, potentially that neutral’s office personnel can prepare all the paperwork or required documents for both sides. Technically, both husband and wife or domestic partners will remain listed as being “in pro per” or self-represented on the documents going to the court. The neutral mediator does not represent either side.Read more:

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Divorce Mediation Interview on the Rob Black Show

I had the pleasure of being invited to join the Rob Black radio show this morning on to discuss divorce mediation. Rob has a great radio show on money, finances and investments and also has a daily show on Kron TV.

Here is a link to the podcast so you can hear the show: Link.

Or go to the website and select "Listen" to today's podcast.

Here's more information about Rob's shows so you can tune in any time:

Rob Black & Your Money
Channel 4 KRON TV

"Rob Black and Your Money" is on daily at 4:00 pm on Channel 4 KRON in San Francisco. Rob is always on the hunt for financial news you can use. Audiences gain valuable information and education about what is happening in the financial world, and viewers can utilize this education to make money. To tap directly into Rob's Wall Street expertise, watch the show and try to figure out why Rob selected the stories that he did. He tries hard to make sure that every story has a lesson in it so that you can become better investors. Rob will take your calls on the news if you call 800-440-4884.

The Rob Black Show

Flamboyant, irreverent, over-the-top, and smart as a whip, Rob Black personifies fortune-making spirit of today's marketplace. Combining his uncanny ability to predict market winners & losers with his groundbreaking use of the callers information. Black combines market savvy, an eagle eye for brand positioning, and a unique style of fired-up energy to put audiences of the on the road to financial success. To tap directly into Rob's Wall Street expertise, give him a call on the show hotline. Rob wants to speak with you! Call toll free at 1-800-345-KNEW (5639). You can hear the show live from 10 a.m. to Noon on 910AM KNEW. You can hear the show anywhere in America via the live stream at

Mediation: the least expensive divorce option

From the Ridgefield Press in Connecticut, family law attorney, Karen Stansbury, switched from 20 years of litigation to providing mediation services for family and civil disputes. Here are excerpts from the article

“I will no longer practice family litigation — I’ve done it for 20 years and I do not think it works,” she said. “In the traditional litigation process, parties give up control of their lives and suddenly a team of total strangers has its nose in their personal affairs and is telling them what to do. It is a truly invasive and disgusting experience.”

In 2007, she said, the Boston Law Collaborative found that mediation was by far the least expensive divorce option, with a median cost of $6,600, compared to $19,723 for a collaborative divorce, $26,830 for settlements negotiated by rival lawyers, and $77,746 for full-scale litigation.

“The key to successful mediation is the willingness of each party to listen to the other party and to understand their different perspectives and concerns,” Ms. Stansbury said. “No one ‘wins’ in mediation. The goal is to reach an agreement that is based on fully informed decisions.”

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Mediation in Paradise

There's a part of me that doesn't want to believe there are conflicts in such idyllic places as Maui. Granted, I haven't been there in many years, but my memory (or maybe I imagined this) is of a slower, more peaceful and enjoyable way of life which exists in a lush island paradise (maybe I should go back to confirm this...). I prefer to think of it that way rather than to think there are workplace conflicts in Maui which are not easily resolved with a handshake and a smile.

But the truth is there are conflicts everywhere, even in good companies, in healthy families, in happy relationships, and yes, even in island paradises. And, when those conflicts reach a certain level, or involve legal rights and obligations, those conflicts may require the assistance of a skilled mediator to provide neutral, unbiased guidance and structure for productive discussions to help the disputants resolve their disagreements.

According to the Maui News, there are, in fact, conflicts in Maui (gasp!). Luckily, the "Mediation Services of Maui" has been granted some money for its conflict resolution program in the workplace. Here's what they have to say about the purpose of mediation in the workplace:

"In announcing the grant, Mediation Services noted that unresolved conflicts affect profitability because they can cause stress, employee turnover, absenteeism, sabotage and lawsuits. The workshops can show the cost-reducing benefits or collaborative problem-solving." (emphasis added)

"Mediation Services of Maui is a nonprofit, community-based organization established in 1982 to provide, teach and facilitate dispute resolution. It helps all age groups and in settings such as family, neighborhood, business and government. The process is meant to bring people together to find their own best solutions in a process that promotes respect, communication and peace."

Here is a link to the full article.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

"Economy causes surge in family-law mediation, collaborative work"

An article in the Journal Record today highlights the financial benefits of avoiding a costly divorce by choosing divorce mediation or collaborative law over a litigated divorce. Given the state of our economy, many couples who have decided to divorce are searching for less expensive options which will still result in a fair, complete and enforceable agreement.

This is the link to the full article written by Correy Stephenson. And below is an excerpt from the article:

"Driven by the economy, divorcing couples across the country are increasingly using mediation and the collaborative process – for a fraction of what it costs to litigate a family law case.

For couples who are divorcing and losing some of their assets anyway, cost savings is especially important, said Henry Gornbein, a partner at Gornbein Smith Peskin-Shepherd in Bloomfield Hills, Mich.

“Litigation is so expensive and clients want to keep things as cost-effective as possible, without being in and out of court every week,” he said.
Gornbein recently finished mediating a divorce, with a series of meetings and no court appearances, saving the couple “several thousands of dollars” over the cost of litigation.

“I often ask my clients, ‘Do you want to spend your children’s college education (in court) to resolve your problems, or do you want to keep the money for your family’s future?’” Gornbein said.

Although no statistics are available, Howard I. Goldstein, a partner at Rosenberg, Freedman & Goldstein in Newton, Mass., said that anecdotally, collaborative lawyers are much busier these days.

Compared to just a year ago, his firm has doubled the amount of mediation and collaborative law work in family law cases, he estimated.

“It’s really on fire,” Goldstein said.

Reducing cost
In many cases nowadays, the parties are dividing debt and not equity, which means they need to spend as little as possible to get the process done, Gornbein said.
Other ways to resolve a divorce are attractive because it is “shocking how expensive litigating a divorce can be,” said Goldstein, who just litigated a case that culminated in a two-day trial and cost his client $150,000 – and the client’s ex-wife paid twice that.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

When Mediation Doesn't Work

Two observations: 1) I think optimism is a required personality trait for mediators; and 2) when mediation does not solve the problem, the optimistic mediator may be devastated.

Not everyone is cut out to be a mediator. Similarly, not everyone is cut out to be a teacher or a police officer or a therapist or long distance truck driver, etc. We all have natural abilities which can be enhanced with skills training and there are some things, no matter how much training we have, that we just can't be taught. I think irrational optimism is one of them. And I have to confess that I am an irrational optimist. Yes, I think it makes me a good mediator and it has some other upsides in the rest of my life that I can't complain about, but it also has a downside (that would be the "irrational" part).

As an irrational optimist, I truly believe that anything is possible in mediation despite a history between the parties of a complete
inability to reach an agreement - on anything. Not all couples are unable to reach agreements on anything. Some mediating couples just need help and guidance through the divorce process or to come up with a good parenting plan in a separation. Other mediating couples are able to reach agreements on certain things but just need some help in generating creative options for settlement and to figure out what feels fair between them. And other mediating couples are not able to agree on anything and it's often amazing that they both agreed to use my services in the first place.

So there are low-conflict couples and there are high-conflict couples and everything in between. But even the high-conflict couples are usually able to reach agreements in mediation because they were able to work together at least to get themselves to my office. This means I generally have the pleasure of working with couples who, despite a difficult situation, want to maintain some level of civility in working through their divorce and I am happy to help them accomplish that even when they have not been able to agree on anything (sometimes since well before their separation).

I think it's this irrational optimism that results in a feeling of incredulity and something like emotional devastation when one of my cases "falls out of mediation." This does not happen very often. In the last five years of solely mediating family law matters, I have had only a couple cases fall out of mediation. One of those happened this week. In fact, I have had more couples end mediation because they are reconciling than I have had couples end mediation because there was no hope of reaching an agreement.

In an earlier case, I agreed (for the first time in my 10 years as an attorney) that mediation was no longer appropriate even though an agreement had been reached. They were a high-conflict couple and they truly needed more mental health support than mediation typically provides. Although we are able to deal with the emotional aspects of divorce in mediation, some couples need far more support, which is when I recommend the Collaborative Law Process which includes a divorce coach and mental health experts as well as attorneys who all agree to stay out of court. It's not a cheap option, but it is much kinder and supportive (and yes, less expensive) than traditional litigation. Even though I agreed mediation was no longer right for them, I was still shocked that it came to that, particularly since they had reached an agreement through mediation and it was only afterward that the agreement fell apart.

In this more recent case, I'm not convinced that the couple can't continue their work together in mediation to reach a settlement but it has fallen out of mediation nevertheless. Maybe this is my irrational optimism or maybe it's what I know from practicing law for 10 years and spending more time in a courtroom than I care to remember. But if 90% of cases settle before trial, and if all along the way to trial, settlement discussions and conferences are required, why not short circuit all that pre-trial and trial work and focus efforts on reaching a settlement now? It's not easy - it's still a divorce and it's still an emotionally and financially complex situation that nobody wants to find themselves in and there are going to be ups and downs and hard decisions that need to be made. And it only works if both parties want to reach a settlement and do the work needed to get to that point.

Mediation is a voluntary process and I can't make anyone continue with something that isn't working for them. I can only wish them the best of luck and keep my door open in case there's a chance I can help in the future. Because that's the other personality trait needed for a mediator: a sincere desire to help others to get through a difficult time with as little pain and scarring as possible under the circumstances.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Family Court called "Needlessly Adversarial"

More good news about family law from Canada's Telegraph-Journal. Well, it's good news and bad news really. The bad news is that the family court systems in Canada seem to be as poor a place to resolve divorce and child custody issues as the family courts in the U.S. The good news is that their government appears to recognize this problem and is working on providing mediation services for couples and parents who wish to work together in a more civilized and less litigious way.

Here is an excerpt:

FREDERICTON - The Liberal government is launching a pilot project that will give families the option of using mediation services to settle disputes outside of the family court system. The announcement came on the heels of a report released Tuesday that found New Brunswick's family court system was "needlessly adversarial, frustratingly slow and much too expensive."

Here's the link to the full article:

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Divorce Mediation vs. Collaborative Law

Here's an interesting article out of Alberta indicating that the family law attorneys in Lethbridge have moved from the traditional litigation model of divorce litigation (each party has an attorney and the judge decides everything through hearings and court trials) to the collaborative divorce model which is a team approach using mental health and financial professionals in addition to the attorneys and everyone signs agreements to stay out of court.

The article is titled "Mediation a Team Effort." However, the article is not about mediation at all but is about the Collaborative Law divorce process. Other than the titling error, it is great PR for the collaborative process, which I think of as a close sibling of mediation. Both processes allow the client to have more control over the outcome and both processes are focused on keeping the family out of court and doing what is best for the individuals and their children.

Here is an excerpt:
“It’s a client-centred process,” [Collaborative Family Law Attorney Janis Pritchard] said Monday. “And they needed more than what I could offer.” Divorce, she reminded an audience from a variety of professional fields, is more than a legal issue. Finances are at stake, too, and so is the emotional and mental health of both parties. And during all that trauma, the real needs of children caught in the crossfire are sometimes overlooked. That’s why involving people with counselling or mental health training is essential — right from the start. “They have way better skills,” she said, and helping with the client’s emotional needs may be the first priority.

And here is the link to the article:

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Custody Litigation Damages the Children

Most parents know that custody litigation is not an ideal place for parents or children and is something to be avoided if possible. Custody litigation is both financially costly as well as emotionally costly. And while parents may recover from the financial impact of a drawn out custody battle and move on with their lives, when do the children recover from being put in the middle of their parents' fight?

As a San Francisco divorce mediator, I encourage parents to work together for the health and future well being of their children. Regardless of the status of the intimate relationship between the parents, they will always be parents. While the relationship between the parents changes, it does not change the fact that the children still need both of their parents in their lives. It can be hard to put aside anger and other strong emotions following a difficult separation, but is a task made easier when both parents are committed to putting the best interests of their children first. Working with a mediator can help make this possible.

(Tug of War image from: The Child Center and Adult Services, Inc. - Shady Grove Professional Building, 16220 Frederick Road, Suite 502, Gaithersburg, MD 20877-4022
(T) 301-978-9750 - (F) 301-978-9753 - E-mail:

Saturday, February 28, 2009

SelfhelpMagazine Articles: Marriage - 10 REASONS TO TRY DIVORCE MEDIATION

I have pasted below a link to an article in Self Help Magazine that provides 10 short but important reasons to try divorce mediation. Here is the introduction to the article:

"You've decided to seek a divorce. Your nerves are frayed; the in-laws are asked pointed questions; the children are beginning to act up in all-too-transparent ways; and your pleasantness is in the midst of an earthshaking landslide. What can you do? Clearly, you can hire legal advice. But who? Here's a checklist of reasons why working with a trained mediator can often help:"

SelfhelpMagazine Articles: Marriage - 10 REASONS TO TRY DIVORCE MEDIATION

Posted using ShareThis

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Is Mediation Binding?

This is a confusing question given how mediation works. If the question is posed as: "Is an agreement reached through mediation binding?" then the answer is "Yes!"

But because the mediator is not making decisions for the parties, when someone asks the more common question: "Is mediation binding?" I have to first unravel the question in order to make sure that my answer explains that the question doesn't make sense. And when I read articles from various online sources stating that "mediation is not binding" it has a tendency to drive me crazy because that is inaccurate and misleading.

In arbitration, where an arbitrator is hired to make a decision for disputing parties, the arbitrator's decision can either be binding or nonbinding. This means that the parties in the beginning of the case decide whether the decision reached by the arbitrator (who basically sits as a judge) is going to be the final decision in the case or whether the parties will keep their right to bring the dispute to trial if they don't like the decision imposed by the arbitrator.

But mediation is different from arbitration. In mediation, the mediator is hired to help the parties reach an agreement that works for them. There is no deciding whether the agreement reached through mediation is going to be binding or nonbinding because the goal of mediation is to arrive at an agreement everyone can live with. Once the parties reach their agreement, there is an agreement and therefore an end to the dispute. The agreement reached by the parties is put in writing and signed by the parties (creating a binding contract) and is submitted to the court and turned into an order of the court (just as if the judge had made the order directly to the parties).

So, yes, an agreement reached through mediation is binding because that is the purpose of mediation. Anyone who says mediation is not binding is mistaken and most likely does not understand how mediation works.

Friday, January 02, 2009

Why Isn't Mediation More Common on TV and Movies?

Happy New Year! At a recent social event, I was engaged in a conversation with a well-educated and informed individual ("Pat") who was curious about my chosen profession as a family law mediator. Pat wanted to know more about the types of clients I work with, how people find me and how I help couples in a different way than traditional attorneys do. I explained to Pat that as a neutral mediator, I do not take sides in a dispute, but instead help couples work together in what I see as a more civilized manner than what litigation often requires.

I told Pat that the family courts require couples to "meet and confer" to try to reach informal resolution at every step along the way even in a fully contested court dispute, and that the vast majority of court cases settle before trial. I also told Pat that it made more sense to me to start couples off in a less antagonistic and more collaborative way, to start working together toward informal resolution right from the start and avoid the time, expense and stress of unnecessary litigation to get to the same point that almost all divorcing couples get to at some point which is a settlement.

My logic made much sense to Pat and Pat added that it seems couples who reach their own agreements are more likely to feel satisfied with the win-win results over the more traditional win-lose results from a court battle (although I think those results are more like lose-lose for everyone, including children who are caught in the middle of such battles!)

In asking how clients find me, (which I said is through referrals from past clients and also from attorneys and from the Internet). Pat was curious to know why we don't hear or see more about mediation in the media. Pat said that every divorce portrayed in television or movies includes one side battling the other side, both armed with attorneys and neither of the disputing individuals even talking to each other; Pat and I both searched our memories for divorce mediation having a starring role in such shows. I agreed that the traditional model of battling litigants is much more prevalent despite the fact that it does not make good sense on any level. The way I see it, a couple knows their own finances and their own circumstances and history and issues relating to their own children better than anyone so why would we not want this couple to communicate directly with each other? And why would we want a stranger (the judge) to make decisions about their personal lives rather than trying to assist the couple in finding their own solutions that actually work for everyone involved?

I recognize that circumstances surrounding the end of a marriage or partnership are generally not ideal, but my goal is to help couples who have decided not to stay together to still communicate with each other productively to get through the difficulty of a divorce in a more civilized manner and to maintain control over the decisions made about their own children, retirement plans, stock options, intellectual property, real estate, support and anything else that is related to each couples' situation.

All of this means that mediation is less dramatic than a court battle that takes a year or more and tens of thousands of dollars. Although drama makes for good television and movie scripts, it does not make for peaceful resolution of issues in most couples' divorces. So that is my theory as to why we don't see mediation much on TV or in movies. Any other ideas?