How to Mediate a Divorce in California and Still Represent Yourself

Divorcing spouses often use mediation to resolve family law disputes outside of the legal system. If you are researching how to mediate a divorce in California, contrary to popular belief, you do not need an attorney to mediate your issues. Mediation is a form of alternative dispute resolution that encourages divorcing spouses to come together to discuss and resolve their issues. Read on to learn more about how to mediate a divorce in California and still represent yourself.

Family Law Mediation Overview

Self-represented litigants often use mediation to negotiate divorce settlements. A mediator is a third party neutral who helps couples discuss and resolve issues on their divorce.  Mediators do not need to be lawyers (and often are not) and cannot offer legal advice. The role of the mediator is to help people work through issues to negotiate a solution. The mediator does not take sides and does not make the final decision, but rather facilitates positive discussions between the couple so they can reach the best possible resolution. Common issues mediators help couples resolve are child support and custody, spousal support, and asset/property division.

There are several benefits to hiring a mediator. Hiring a mediator to resolve an issue is much less expensive than going to court and litigating it before a judge. In addition, most mediation sessions have a high success rate in resolving issues and, in the long run, also help improve communication between divorcing spouses. Most couples can resolve their issues without legal help. Some couples often feel that attorneys get in the way of couples resolving their disputes during mediation.

If you have been subjected to domestic violence, mediation without involving an attorney may not be in your best interest. Contact A People’s Choice to find out if mediation is right for you.

The Family Law Mediation Process

Both couples have to be willing to attend mediation to resolve their issues in order for mediation to work. This means that both parties must be willing to negotiate and compromise on pending issues. The mediation process usually begins with a phone call to the mediator. The couple will each speak to the mediator one-on-one and offer a background on the issues that they would like to have resolved. Upon attending the first meeting, the mediator will explain in detail what each spouse can expect from the session and the overall process of mediation. For example, the mediator may instruct everyone to stay in the same room throughout the entire session or to go into separate conference rooms so that the mediator can get each spouse’s views in private.

Each spouse will be provided the opportunity to share his/her feelings on the pending issues. The mediator will find where each spouse agrees and disagrees. The mediator will also help both parties decide what needs to be accomplished and foster negotiations between the parties to help them reach a resolution.

If the parties reach an agreement during mediation, the mediator will sometimes draft the formal Marital Settlement Agreement. The mediation agreement can then be incorporated into your divorce judgment.

How to Mediate a Divorce Settlement

Everyone has opinions and positions in life about what is important to them. In order for someone to change their mind or position on important issues, they must first feel that they are being heard about what is important to them. In order for the mediation process to be successful, you will need to first find out what is that your spouse wants and why it is important to them. Once you are able to pinpoint these two important facts, you then need to find a way to accommodate those needs while still feeling good about the result. This is called compromising, when both parties are getting what they need but not exactly what they wanted. If you absolutely cannot find a way to compromise, at least your spouse will feel they have been heard and listened to. That will go a long way when the mediator attempts to find a middle ground for a particular contested issue.

Focus on how you communicate with your spouse. If your spouse has made a request but you are not sure you can agree to the request, you can respond by saying, “I don’t know I feel comfortable with exactly what you are request but would you be willing to consider other options that would be close to the same goal that we could both live with?” For example,  if the issue pertained to spousal support and your spouse wants you to waive spousal support you could respond, “I would really like to be able to waive spousal support. I know we are both struggling financially with this divorce and that you are angry about having to pay money to me. However, I would be willing to consider a shorter time if we can figure out a way together for me to be self-supporting within the next one or two years. Would you be willing work on that together?”

When approaching mediation, don’t start with the biggest problem first. Start with smaller, less contentious issues that you may be able to more easily compromise to . For example, addressing splitting the frequent flier miles you both accumulated is much easier then deciding how to value a business or who gets to keep the house. If you are able to reach agreements with small items, it will empower each of you and give you both confidence that you will be able to do the same with the more difficult matters. As you successfully compromise and resolve the easier issues, your agreement will start to take shape and you can build on the positive rather than the negative.

Divorce Mediation Cost in California

Couples that use the mediation process and not litigate contested matters will certainly save money overall. Most mediators charge an hourly or per-session fee. Court ordered mediation or mediation provided through a community mediation agency may be available for free or at a reduced fee based on a sliding scale. The number of mediation sessions to gather information and negotiate an agreement will vary from couple to couple since the issues surrounding a couple’s divorce will vary. These variances will also affect the final cost of  mediation, but the cost of mediation is typically substantially less than adversarial litigation through the courts. A private divorce mediator might charge anywhere from $100 an hour to several hundred dollars an hour. Some mediators provide services to couples at a flat rate. Some mediators include preparing the Marital Settlement Agreement or other divorce paperwork in their fees. You may be able to cut the overall costs of the mediation by suggesting to the mediator that you wish to only use the mediator to negotiate the terms of settlement. You can then hire  a legal document assistant to merge the terms of your mediated settlement into a formal Marital Settlement Agreement.

How Long Does Mediation Take?

Mediating issues surrounding a divorce could take as little as a few hours. A good rule of thumb is that divorce mediation should run no more than twelve hours In most divorce cases, mediation can usually be completed in 4 to 7 seven hours. Mediation sessions may last a few hours spread out over several weeks. Sometimes, however, it may be more beneficial to have a longer, intensive mediation session which could resolve all the divorce issues a single session.  The length of each mediation session, and how often they are scheduled, typically depends on what the disputed issues are and the couples needs and urgency.

If a couple is unable to reach resolution of disputed issued in a few sessions, it is highly unlikely that things will change with more divorce mediation sessions. Mediation that goes on week after week with discussions on the same points of conflict typically just wear the parties out and in the end have no beneficial outcome.

California Divorce Mediation Checklist

In order to get the most out of your mediation sessions, those participating in mediation should prepare for each session. The better prepared each party is, the more effective and efficient the mediation process will be.

  • Complete any paperwork requested by the mediator.
  • Compile a detailed list of all issues you believe are relevant to the resolution.
  • Collect copies of relevant material to bring to the mediation.
  • Come up with some different ideas to settle the issues that you are mediating.

To prepare for mediation, categorize and identify your issues and concerns as referenced in the following checklists:

  • Access to Information/People: Educational and medical records, teachers, doctors, etc.
  • Medical Emergencies: Decision making, notification, legal consent
  • Daily Schedule: Children’s living arrangements for a typical week, time between parents
  • Holidays: Secular, religious, birthdays, reunions
  • Vacations: Summer vacations, winter and spring breaks, travel
  • Transportation: Arrangements regarding pick-up and drop-off
  • Change of Residence: Restrictions and notice to other parent of intent to move
  • Decision-Making: Major decisions about medical treatment, education, religion, discipline, safety
  • Renegotiation: Periodic review of plan
  • Conflict Resolution: How will you settle future disputes
  • Complete Disclosure of assets and debt: Gathering and sharing financial information and documentation about assets/debts
  • Procedure for Division: Identification and valuation, community vs. separate property division
  • Categories of Assets: vehicles, household furnishings, boats, collectables, other personal property, bank accounts, stocks, bonds, funds. real estate, life insurance, business interests and assets, pensions, IRA, 401(k), etc., patents, stock options, etc.
  • Categories of Debts: Mortgages, Bank Loans (e.g., car loans), Loans on Life Insurance, Loans on Retirement Accounts, Credit Cards, Personal Loans,
  • Budgeting: Parents’ expenses and children’s expenses
  • Income: Identifying all sources for both parties
  • Child Support: Calculating basic support level, school tuition, childcare, camp fees, extracurricular activities, extraordinary medical expenses,
  • Alimony: Establishing needs, amount, type, and duration
  • Adjustments: Cost of living, changed circumstances
  • Medical Insurance
  • Life Insurance
  • College Tuition & Expenses
  • Taxes including claiming tax exemptions for children and Dividing Refunds; Liabilities, Alimony vs. Child Support

Remember mediation is voluntary.  It is an opportunity for each party to bring up any issue they feel is relevant to the resolution.  Mediation agreements are binding and will be the backbone of your divorce settlement.

How to Find the Right Mediator

When searching for a divorce mediator, try to get a referral from someone you can trust. You can ask legal professionals, financial or spiritual advisers for referrals. Read The American Bar Association’s Model Standards of Practice for Family and Divorce Mediation, which outlines principles for divorce mediators.  The you look for a mediator who provides mediation services consistent with the standards outlined in this article.  If you are researching how to mediate a divorce in California, you can contact A People’s Choice for help in preparing your divorce paperwork as well as locating a low-cost mediator. Call 1-800-747-2780 to speak with a representative. At A People’s Choice, we offer statewide legal document assistance to residents of Ventura and Los Angeles County as well as all other counties in California.

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By |2018-01-18T15:47:32+00:00June 17th, 2015|Family Law|0 Comments

About the Author:

Sandra M. McCarthy, founder of A People’s Choice Inc., has worked exclusively in the legal field since 1976. She served as the 2004-2005 President of CALDA (California Association of Legal Document Assistants). She obtained a Paralegal Certificate from the University of California, Santa Barbara. During her career in the legal field, she has worked as a freelance paralegal, law office manager and paralegal studies teacher, and has co-authored numerous legal publications and written hundreds of self-help legal articles. As a registered Legal Document Assistant, Sandy is dedicated to providing affordable, low-cost, self-help document preparation services for California consumers in all 58 counties.

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