Divorce is almost always an unpleasant process. But it doesn't have to be a drawn-out battle that piles on emotional and financial pain. Many couples have found that divorce mediation, a form of alternative dispute resolution (ADR), can help them decide how they'll handle the practical issues in their divorce—including property division, child custody and visitation, child support, and alimony—in a way that lessens conflict and fosters cooperation. It can also help them save on the cost of divorce.
In divorce mediation, spouses meet with a specially trained mediator to discuss and attempt to resolve the issues in their divorce. Divorce mediators are often lawyers, but it's not a requirement: Some mediators are financial specialists (like CPAs), psychologists, social workers, or MFTs (marriage and family therapists). Mediation can occur in person or online.
Mediators don't serve as an advocate for either spouse—they remain neutral throughout the mediation. Additionally, mediators don't make decisions about the divorce. Instead, they use their knowledge, skill, and experience to help the couple reach a compromise they can live with.
At the end of a successful mediation, the spouses will have a marital settlement agreement that lays out their agreements about the issues in their divorce. A successful mediation doesn't result in a divorce, though—the spouses still have to present the settlement agreement to the court to approve. Because the spouses have settled, they can file an "uncontested" divorce, meaning that the court needs to only approve the settlement agreement and issue a final divorce decree. Courts usually can resolve an uncontested divorce within a month or so—much faster than a contested divorce would be finalized.
There's no requirement that you have a lawyer when you go to mediation. In fact, most mediators don't like having lawyers present during mediation—the presence of lawyers can make the parties less likely to collaborate. Spouses are free to consult with a lawyer outside of mediation, though, and many mediators encourage the spouses to have their own lawyer review any settlement agreement reached in mediation.
Not having a lawyer attend mediation will save you money. However, hiring an attorney to review your settlement agreement or help you prepare for mediation is money well-spent: What you agree to in mediation has serious effects on your post-divorce life, so it's worth having a lawyer explain the settlement agreement's terms and consequences.
Once you've written and signed a settlement agreement, you might be able to finalize your divorce on your own or with the assistance of the mediator. Many mediators will draft and file the necessary paperwork for you.
If you decide to file the divorce paperwork yourself, check your court's website for assistance: Most courts post all the divorce forms you'll need on their website, along with detailed instructions. If you'd rather not handle the paperwork on your own, then you might want to have an attorney represent you.
Even if you hire an attorney to represent you in a mediation or assist with your settlement agreement and paperwork, you'll spend far less in attorneys' fees by mediating than you would if you went to court. A litigated divorce—one where the parties rely on the judge to decide the issues in their divorce—is usually a drawn-out process (often taking a year or more) that involves a lot of paperwork, numerous court appearances, and, if you're working with an attorney, legal fees that can amount to tens of thousands of dollars.
The cost of divorce mediation depends on a number of factors, such as:
It's common for divorcing spouses to split the mediator's fee and any other mediation-related expenses. So even in a mediation with many issues to resolve, both spouses usually pay far less than they would if they decided to forgo mediation and use attorneys to try to hammer out an agreement.
Although mediation is a great option for many, it won't be a good fit for every divorce. When the chances of successfully mediating a divorce are slim to begin with, engaging in the process would be a waste of time and money.
Mediation is unlikely to succeed when:
Even when the divorce seems like an ideal candidate for mediation, sometimes things just don't work out, meaning the spouses will have to head to court. If this happens, it might seem like you're starting from scratch—but it doesn't necessarily mean mediation was a complete waste of time and effort. A mediation that doesn't result in full settlement might still:
It's true that a failed mediation might indeed wind up costing you more money in the end. However, if you and your spouse go into the mediation process with the right attitude, you'll have increased greatly the chances of a successful outcome. Considering all the benefits that could result from mediation, it might be a risk worth taking.