How to Begin the End of Your Marriage

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How to start the path towards a new life after divorce
The phone rings, and the caller speaks.

  • “I’m calling to get more information about the divorce mediation process.”
  • “My husband just told me he wants to end our marriage, and I don’t know what to do.”
  • “We both agree we need to end our marriage. What are the next steps?”

Whether by phone or by email, the first inquiry to start the process to end a marriage is always poignant. Over the years of my practice, I have valued these first connections as a way to bring reassurance, calm, and order to what is often a difficult and emotional conversation.

Clients later reflect that making that first call of inquiry is one of the biggest hurdles of ending the marriage. As one client said, “It makes it seem so real.”

A Relaxed Consultation

What is most reassuring to potential clients is that the first step in my practice is a relaxed consultation. In answering the initial inquiry, I emphasize that the consult is just for gathering information:

  • There is no fee for the initial consult.
  • No decisions have to be made during this first session.
  • There is nothing that has to be prepared before coming to the session.
  • There is no obligation.

So while “relaxed” may not be quite the way they would describe this first step, potential clients who arrive for their initial, 30-45 minute consultation are able to hear and absorb information about the divorce mediation process without any strings attached.

How the Consultation Flows

What is my job as a mediator?

My job in the divorce mediation process is to guide them through the conversations they need to have to create an agreement known as a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU). Along the way I provide useful information about the divorce process.

What is the client’s job?

The clients’ focus during the process is to consider their options as well as each other’s needs and requests to make their decisions together.

What do potential clients learn about the divorce mediation process in the initial consult?

After gathering some brief details, I go over the elements that they will need to think about to create a comprehensive agreement. We do not discuss details in the initial consult, but I review the concepts of a parenting plan, sharing money between each person (child support and/or spousal maintenance), sharing retirement funds, options for the home, life insurance, health insurance, and other relevant issues.

What other topics often come up during the initial mediation consultation?

Sometimes the discussion during the initial consult digresses into other very important topics. It is an opportunity for clients to share their worries and concerns. Here is a sampling of what else might be discussed.

  • How and when to tell the children
  • What timeframe is being considered to live separately
  • What needs to be done to get a spouse’s name off the mortgage; refinancing options
  • Exploring options when the couple is not on the same page about ending the marriage; marriage or discernment counselors
  • Based on the debt situation, perhaps a bankruptcy attorney should be consulted
  • Names of financial planners and resources who can calculate the value of a business and/or pensions
  • Many resources available to help you.

What Is the Clients’ Homework During the Divorce Mediation Process?

There are areas in which advance preparation really make the divorce mediation process more efficient. If this information is not gathered before starting the mediation process, the couple will need to pull it together during the process before the MOU can be completed.

1. Identifying Assets and Debts

  • The fair market value of their home (and any other properties they may own).
  • The balance on all retirement funds (401K, IRAs, pensions).
  • The value of assets owned by either person like savings, mutual funds, stocks, a business.
  • The value of their vehicles (unless leasing), boats, RVs, etc.
  • The balances on debts including credit cards, mortgage, student loans, vehicle loans, etc.

2. Preparing Budgets for Both People

It is essential for clients to have an appreciation for how much living separately is going to cost. When clients discuss sharing money (either child support or spousal maintenance or both), the costs of meeting the needs of both people must be considered:

  • Separate housing, insurance, car payments, food, utilities, pet care.
  • Children’s expenses such as clothes, child care and extra-curricular activities.

How Long Does the Divorce Mediation Process Take?

Lots of variables go into how long the process will take. I do not rush my clients, but I do help them stay focused. Once I have gathered information, I can make a good estimate of how long the mediation process will take. Issues that do affect the length of time are:

  • If there are children, and what are their ages?
  • Do they live in a house?
  • Is the couple currently living together or separately?
  • What is the debt situation?
  • Do both people work in a job or own a business?
  • How well is the couple able to communicate?

Each divorce mediation session with me is scheduled as a two-hour meeting.

Generally when clients have children, the mediation process takes 2-3 sessions. If there are no children, the process takes 1-2 sessions.

Then there is a final session where the clients review the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) agreement I created for them to make any needed changes and clarifications.

How Much Does the Divorce Mediation Process Cost?

Including the time to draft the agreement, the mediation process takes an average of 8-10 billable hours. In the initial consult, we discuss my hourly rate and how the sliding scale and any discounts apply.

How Do the Clients Process the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) Into the Legal System?

After the MOU is completed, the couple can take the agreement to separate attorneys for review and filing, or they can go to a neutral or “scribe” attorney. The latter attorney will not give either party advice but will work with the couple to have them sign all of the forms needed to file the agreement.

In both cases, the attorney(s) will file the documents on the client’s’ behalf with the court system.

Legal Separation or No-Fault Divorce?

The agreement can be signed as a legal separation (LS) or a no-fault divorce. It is the same agreement in both cases.

The two main differences between a legal separation and a no-fault divorce are:

  1. During a legal separation the couple can continue to share health insurance (in most cases, though there are some exceptions).
  2. During a legal separation the couple can still file married filing jointly for federal and state taxes.
  3. On the flip side, retirement and pension assets cannot generally be distributed until there is a Judgment of Divorce.

Information is Comforting

I encourage folks to call me, seven days a week, if they have any follow-up questions or need other resources.

At the end of almost every consult the couple leaves knowing more that when they came in. They are noticeably more relaxed and have a pathway that makes sense to start the journey. They are comforted by knowing there is a process that is affordable, gentle, and efficient. And they have met a divorce mediator who can guide them across the bridge from marriage to independence.

Photo Credit: ©iStockPhoto

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