I encourage you to view everything as “written in sand” until you each understand the full picture of your divorce. This frees both of you up to negotiate with each other with more confidence.
As with so many other issues, mediators differ in the way they view the sequence of mediation. Some mediators insist that the husband and wife decide where to begin. I’m at the other end of the spectrum. There is a typical process I encourage my mediation clients to use to reach a settlement. However, your individual needs may cause you to depart from it.
Here’s the sequence I like to use:
- What you own and what you owe
- Your parenting plan
- Child support and spousal support
- How I do it
What You Own and What You Owe
First, the two of you work to identify and value what you own and what you owe, noting the tax ramifications of each item. Then the mediator helps you explore how you can allocate these fairly between the two of you.
The decision of how you divide your assets and debts is up to you, and in mediation you make it with full knowledge of your options. Remember, the idea is to stay in control of your divorce. You know your needs better than anyone else.
Your mediator needs to make sure that both of you have as good an idea as possible of how a judge might divide up your property and debts. It’s up to you, of course, whether to depart from that standard in the distribution you set in mediation.
Your Parenting Plan
I reject the assumption inherent in the whole idea of “custody” that one of you “wins custody” and the other “loses custody.” Your children need both of you, and both of you need your children. You are the only parents they will ever have, and they need you to cooperate in the future as parents.
A good mediator will help you keep this in mind as you work out an agreement that provides a role for both of you in the best interests of your children. The best kind of parenting plan keeps the children from becoming a burden to either of you. The best kind of parenting plan allows you to share your duties of caring for the children in a way that helps them grow and thrive.
The purpose of budgeting is to help both of you realize the cost of living separately. Obviously, because you are living in two households, either your total expenses will increase or your standard of living will decline, or both. However, in developing your budgets, you may identify areas of spending that you can reduce without significantly affecting your quality of life.
Budgeting is difficult for most people. I know it’s difficult for me. We’re not supposed to like it. However, budgeting is financial planning; it enables us to make intelligent decisions and rational choices to manage cash better. You don’t need to account for every dime; instead, budgeting is designed to help you project future needs, recognizing that your future needs will be different from what they were in the past.
Child Support and Spousal Support
Child support in most states is simple. For most of us, it’s figured according to specific statutory guidelines, which your mediator or lawyer can share with you.
Spousal support (also called alimony) is more complicated, more personal, and more flexible. Some couples end up with neither spouse paying any child support, others end up with one of the spouses receiving support for a term of years, and still others agree for one spouse to pay support to the other for life.
Your mediator can talk over you how you might use spousal support to your tax advantage, and how it might help you resolve some of the issues you face in a way that works well for both of you.
How I Do It
I prefer to work with both spouses in the same room. I work on a laptop computer. I have an LCD projector in my office that projects the database files, spreadsheets, word processing documents we deal with onto a screen in my office, so both parties can see them clearly.
This offers several advantages. First, the parties can see clearly what they are agreeing to (or disagreeing about), so decision-making is more efficient. Second, the parties can agree to changes and see them reflected in real time, so negotiations can continue uninterrupted.
Third, and this is a subtle point, the screen in my office is a great big sucker. It commands the parties’ attention. My experience is that when we start working and the results are on the screen, my clients focus more of their attention on the screen and less of their attention on those white-hot emotional issues that are so much a part of most divorces. It keeps us task-focused.
At the end of each session, I print copies of everything we’ve worked on for both of them, so they can share it with their lawyers, their accountants, their therapists, or whoever. Then when they return to mediation, they know where the open issues are and they come ready to negotiate the key points that need to be resolved.