What to Expect in Family Mediation

The family mediation process is designed to give parties every opportunity to make decisions that are fundamentally right for them and their children (if they have children). It does this by providing a safe and fair place to have difficult conversations, ensuring that they get all information, documents and advice they need in order to make informed choices, and reducing the pressure and expense that can make people going through difficult separation make the wrong choices.

The following is a summary of the steps in the Riverdale Mediation process.

1. Introductory telephone interview. Before you agree to mediation, you should speak on the telephone with the mediator or her assistant. This is an opportunity to see if you feel comfortable with the mediator’s personality, skills, training, approach and experience. This conversation should include a brief description of the mediator’s role and style, the involvement of lawyers, and what to expect at the first meeting. The mediator will direct you to the important documents on the website that need to be read and understood, including the Agreement to Mediate. You should be satisfied that the mediator will approach your mediation in a way that makes you comfortable. Any other questions you may have, such as fees, location and availability, should be canvassed at this time.

2. Signing the contract and completing the preliminary intake form. It is preferred that you sign the agreement to mediate before you meet with the mediator. This is a detailed agreement which addresses such things as the impartial role of the mediator, confidentiality, the importance of making and receiving full disclosure, and fee arrangements. If you have any concerns about this agreement, please review it with your lawyer before you sign it. You will also be asked to complete the intake form, also found on the website. This information is provided to the mediator in confidence, and helps her prepare for your first meeting. It also helps the mediator assess if there are any concerns that might make your case unsuitable for mediation. If you have any concerns about completing the intake form, please discuss them with your lawyer before sending it to us.

3. First meeting. The mediator will meet with each party individually once we have received intake forms from both of you. This meeting lasts about one hour. You may bring your lawyer if you wish. An intern will usually be present throughout the mediation process including this meeting. The purpose of this first meeting is to ensure that your case is an appropriate one for mediation, and that both parties are ready to begin. It also helps the mediator design a mediation process that will work the best for both people.

This meeting is confidential between each person and the mediator. The mediator will ask you questions about the history and nature of the relationship, the reason for its breakdown, the issues to be resolved in mediation and what you want to accomplish. She will also ask you whether you have any fears or concerns about the process, and what you might need to have those concerns addressed. Any cultural differences between the parties or between the parties and the mediator should be addressed at this time as well. The mediator may decide, after meeting each client, that the case is not an appropriate one for mediation or that the parties are not ready to begin. It is common for the mediator and the parties’ lawyers to have a conference call after the individual meetings to discuss the best way to proceed, what documents are needed, and any other preliminary matters.

4. Joint meetings. The mediator, both lawyers (if they are attending) and the parties, along with the intern on the file, will meet at the mediator’s office for these sessions. They usually last between two and four hours. If lawyers are present, mediations generally last for a half day or a full day. Parts of the meeting may be conducted by the intern alone, depending on the circumstances of the case. An agenda is created by the parties and counsel, with the mediator’s assistance, and the mediator will guide the parties in a focused, problem-solving discussion on these issues.

If the issues relate to property valuation and division, the mediator may prepare draft and “without prejudice” joint net family property statements to assist the parties in their negotiation. If the issues relate to child or spousal support, the mediator may prepare “Supportmate” calculations that apply the Child Support Guidelines and the Advisory Spousal Support Guidelines. All such documents prepared by the mediator are in draft form only and are intended to be reviewed by the parties’ lawyers for accuracy and completeness. These documents must not be relied upon, by either party, to make a settlement, without obtaining legal advice. Each party will be given equal opportunity to discuss the issues that matter most to him or her. If needed, the mediator/intern will meet separately with each party from time to time in what is called a “caucus”; sometimes it is appropriate to conduct entire mediations this way, using “shuttle diplomacy”.

5. Obtaining legal advice. Although the mediator can guide the parties through steps such as financial disclosure, child support and property division, the mediator cannot give either party legal advice on his or her rights and obligations under the law. Parties are required to obtain independent legal advice before finalizing any proposals discussed in mediation. If the parties’ lawyers do not attend the mediation, the mediator will encourage the parties to contact their legal advisors whenever they need legal advice during the process.

6. Number of meetings. The number of meetings will depend on many factors, including how able the parties are to communicate with each other inside and outside mediation, the number and complexity of issues, whether any outside experts need to be retained to prepare opinions or valuations for the parties, the amount of financial and other documentation required by the parties in order to make informed decisions, and how quickly the parties are able to make decisions. Some mediations are completed in the first joint meeting; many others continue for four or five meetings or more.

7. Conclusion of mediation. The mediation process is designed to allow parties as much time as they need to make careful, considered and reflective decisions, particularly if they are attending without lawyers. When decisions are made by the parties, the mediator will document them in a “memorandum of understanding” (“MOU”), or in a Progress Note. This is a reflection of the mediator’s understanding of the parties’ agreement; it is not a binding settlement. The MOU permits the parties one more opportunity to reflect on their proposed agreement, obtain legal or financial advice, seek out opinions from anyone else necessary, and be sure that they are voluntarily reaching this agreement. The memorandum of understanding is drafted by the mediator in such a way that it is relatively easy for the parties’ lawyers to finalize a binding legal agreement. If the parties and the mediator all agree, the mediator may prepare a draft separation agreement for the lawyers to review with their clients.

8. Follow-up. You should feel free to call or e-mail the mediator when your agreement is signed. We always want to hear from you and welcome any feedback. The lawyers for the parties often have questions about the proposed settlement; and sometimes a follow up meeting is helpful to finalize details.