After watching friends endure a years-long divorce battle with aggressive lawyers who seemed to escalate the conflict more than resolve it, my husband and I made a pact not to go that route when we decided to divorce after being married for nearly a decade.
Instead, we chose mediation with a neutral third party. This method would require us to work together to divide our assets and establish child custody arrangements, and would hopefully help us preserve a decent relationship throughout the process.
We’d been separated for a year but hadn’t decided anything officially. We began having disagreements about money, so we decided it was time come up with a formal plan. We searched online for local divorce mediators who were affordable, local, and available to meet in the next week. We found one and made an appointment to see if she was a good fit.
In that first session, even though I felt ready for this step, I was anxious about facing off with my ex about finances, worried I’d be an emotional wreck, and sad to be at the point where we were admitting we couldn’t fix our problems. But the mediator put me at ease as she covered the basics, explaining that she’d walk us through the process of drafting a fair marital separation agreement. A judge would then sign it outside of court, making it official. There would be no lawyers involved and no court time for us. I felt relieved after that first session, grateful that the mediator’s businesslike approach had kept things from getting too emotional.
I’ll admit that what came next was daunting: We had to divide 10 years’ worth of possessions, figure out support arrangements, and decide on custody percentages without lawyers to advocate for each of us. But we both found the mediator to be a very helpful — and neutral — third party. She made it clear from the beginning that her goal was to fairly and equally divide our assets and to advocate for our children’s best interests in as few sessions as possible.
We both felt comfortable with her approach, so we hired her.
We walked into our first session mostly empty-handed and left with a list of documents we needed for the next session. Mediators charge by the hour (ours billed in 15-minute increments), so if you want to cut back on the length — and therefore the cost — of mediation sessions, show up with certain paperwork and figures in hand:
Pay stubs, plus statements for savings, checking, and retirement accounts from the month you separated (these should show your financial picture before you separated).
Records of car payments, mortgage balances, credit card statements, and child care expenses.
The value of any real estate you share, household furnishings, cars, jewelry, art, musical instruments, or other items of value that you own. (You must declare every asset or debt, so there’s no point holding back on something you don’t want to share.)
The one thing I did have on hand for our first session was a detailed list of dates and times that the children had spent with their father during our separation. This was helpful in determining a realistic shared custody schedule going forward, which was also a determining factor for establishing child support. If you have a similar record, then bring it. If you’re already separated and you don’t have one, start start keeping one.
Beyond dividing up assets and making arrangements for children, mediation comes with heavy emotions. And for good reason — you’re hammering out a business agreement with someone you used to be married to, and with whom you share a family.
Transparency is key when dividing a married life into two. The more information you share with each other, the less emotional the process will feel. It can be hard to fully trust a spouse you’re divorcing, since you wouldn’t be ending the marriage if you were on the best terms. But if you trust your mediator and the process, that will go a long way toward keeping your emotions out of it.
It’s key that you go into mediation fully prepared to compromise — beyond what you may have expected. One of the first things our mediator said to us was, “No matter how things are divided, in the end, it won’t be enough for you to live on, and it will feel like more than you can afford to give up.”
She reiterated this phrase multiple times throughout the mediation process, she was right: Nothing was enough for either of us to show for all that we had put into our marriage. Having a calm, direct, neutral person repeat that mantra had the opposite effect of a pair of lawyers squaring off about our assets. It kept the emotions surrounding our divorce at bay and helped me to stay focused on the goal of separating peacefully.
There was no shouting. There was no sense of needing to “win” anything through the course of our mediation. Our goal was to finalize the divorce without spending a fortune on legal fees or becoming enemies. Thankfully, it worked.