Lynch & Owens are South Shore divorce attorneys and family law attorneys who practice primarily in Plymouth County and Norfolk County, Massachusetts. The following provides answers to some frequently asked questions about the divorce in Massachusetts.
How can I find a divorce mediator on the South Shore of Massachusetts?
Lynch & Owens offers divorce mediation services from our Hingham office through South Shore Divorce Mediation. Contact us to schedule a divorce mediation consultation with one of our Massachusetts divorce mediators.
What’s the difference between divorce mediation and divorce litigation?
Divorce mediation involves the parties to a divorce (spouses who want to be ex-spouses) engaging with a neutral professional who does not and cannot advocate for either of the parties. The Attorney Levy is trained (sometimes an attorney but this is not necessary) at assisting the parties in reaching necessary agreements and memorializing those agreements for submission to the only court that will grant a divorce in Massachusetts, the Probate & family Court. If the parties are able to reach agreements on all issues required by the court before it grant a divorce (for example, child support and custody, division of the marital assets, etc.) the parties may never have to litigate.
General Divorce FAQ
Who is the plaintiff in a divorce?
The plaintiff in a divorce is the spouse who files for divorce first. The plaintiff is the spouse who will be responsible with presenting their case first and putting together any exhibit books were the case to go to trial.
Does it matter who files for divorce first in Massachusetts?
Filing first for divorce does not matter in Massachusetts. The first person to file will choose the grounds for divorce or whether to file a no fault divorce. One major advantage of filing first is the ability to stop your spouse from moving any financial assets or changing beneficiaries on life insurance policies or retirement accounts.
What are postnuptial agreements and how do they work?
Postnuptial agreements are similar to prenuptial agreements, only they are entered midway through a marriage. A “postnup” sometimes makes sense when one spouse receives a large inheritance during a marriage, our spouses experience other financial issues that could impact a future divorce. Postnuptial agreements also tend to arise when one spouse has angered or frustrated the other spouse. As noted in our blog, Massachusetts courts will scrutinize a postnuptial agreement to ensure it was entered under fair circumstances.
How should I prepare for my divorce?
Preparing for divorce is a mix of education, organizing key documents, making smart financial choices and hiring the right lawyer. For a complete rundown on divorce prep, check out our blog on preparing for divorce in Massachusetts.
Does it matter if our prenuptial agreement was signed in another state?
In general, Massachusetts will enforce prenuptial agreements entered in another state by interpreting the terms of the agreement on the original state’s law. Check out our blog on how Massachusetts courts enforce out of state prenups for more details.
How does a party prove that a former spouse is cohabiting with a new romantic partner?
The Alimony Reform Act [Ch. 208, s. 49(d)] provides that “[g]eneral term alimony shall be suspended, reduced or terminated upon the cohabitation of the recipient spouse when the payor shows that the recipient spouse has maintained a common household, as defined in this subsection, with another person for a continuous period of at least 3 months.” Accordingly, a party paying alimony to a former spouse is eligible for a suspension, reduction or termination of alimony if he or she can prove his or her former spouse is cohabitating with a new romantic partner. As detailed in this blog, proof of cohabitation requires a party to the former spouse shares a “common household” with the new romantic partner. Methods of proof include social media, photographs, private investigator testimony or subpoenaed records.
Can parties be bound by a signed preliminary divorce agreement?
Yes, parties who execute a preliminary divorce agreement, commonly known as “memorandum of understanding”, can be bound by its terms, if the instrument indicates that the parties intended for the agreement to be binding. Such agreements are often helpful for parties who have reached an “agreement in principle” on major issues, but still need to work out the final details of the divorce. However, as detailed in this recent blog, parties should understand that such agreements can be binding, even if a party subsequently changes his or her mind.
How are Massachusetts divorce agreements negotiated?
The vast majority of divorce cases are resolved by settlement rather than a contested trial. How divorces are settled is a complex subject. Luckily, An L&O attorney does this subject justice in this entry of the Lynch & Owens Massachusetts Divorce Series, which provides a detailed review of the negotiation and settlement process in a Massachusetts divorce.
What questions should I ask a divorce attorney before hiring him/her?
It is imperative that you feel 100% comfortable with the attorney responsible for your divorce case. Obvious questions to ask your attorney during your initial consultation include: how much does the attorney charge per hour, how much is his or her standard retainer, and what does the lawyer believe is the likely outcome of your case based on the facts you provide. Equal important are more nuanced questions such as: does the attorney believe your expectations are reasonable, does the attorney believe he or she can effectuate your goals, and how would the attorney handle the most challenging parts of your case. For a divorce mediator’s perspective on the questions clients should ask before hiring a family law attorney, check out this blog from attorney and divorce mediator Justin L. Kelsey.
What is a divorce trial like in Massachusetts?
Divorce trials are expensive, time-consuming and generally inefficient processes that unfortunately cannot be avoided in every case. The challenges associated with trial include the extreme time and resources required to prepare for trial, the extraordinary legal costs associated with trial, the lengthy delay in obtaining a ruling, and the lack of control over the case’s outcome.
How long must I wait to get remarried after getting divorced in Massachusetts?
In Massachusetts, an individual must wait for the so called “Nisi Period” of between 90 and 120 days before their divorce becomes “final” (also known as becoming “Absolute”), despite both parties appearing at a hearing before a Probate and Family Court judge and entering a binding Separation Agreement. Only after the Nisi period expires can the parties remarry, file tax returns as unmarried individuals, and avoid having paying a surviving spouse share if they die. The 90 vs. 120 day Nisi Period distinction depends on what type of divorce was filed i.e. contested vs. uncontested.
Can I change lawyers during my divorce?
Generally speaking, you can change lawyers during a divorce, so long as your prior attorney is being replaced with a new divorce lawyer. (Note that the rules are sometimes different if you intend to represent yourself “pro se“. Some judges will not permit a lawyer to withdraw so a party can proceed pro se if a trial date is looming.) There can be several drawbacks to changing lawyers. First, the problems you perceive with your case may not be your lawyer’s fault. Adverse orders, in particular, often fall outside a lawyer’s control, where not every argument convinces a judge. A more fundamental issue is the loss of “institutional knowledge” in your case when you change attorneys. No matter how carefully your new lawyer examines your case file, there is no substitutes for prior attorney’s memory and experiences. Some degree of information or knowledge is always lost when you change attorneys. Finally, hiring a new attorney generally means you must pay your prior counsel what you owe and come up with a new retainer for the new lawyer.
Where can I found official forms for Massachusetts divorce and family law cases?
How will the Social Security changes enacted in 2015 change affect my divorce?
Recent changes in federal law mean that former spouse Social Security benefits will no longer become payable based solely on a worker spouse reaching retirement age. These changes change could significantly affect how parties and divorce lawyers negotiate the division of assets and alimony in divorce cases. Moving forward, ex-spouse benefits will only commence when the working spouse retires. In the past, former spouse benefits began when the working spouse reached retirement age, regardless of whether or not the working spouse actually retired. For more information on this complex subject, check out How Will the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015 Social Security Changes Impact My Divorce?.
How do probate and family court judges punish dishonesty in a Massachusetts divorce?
It is important to distinguish between “dishonesty” in the context of the marital relationship (i.e. adultery and lies told between spouses) and dishonest statements and actions during the divorce litigation process. Probate court judges are generally disinterested in punishing adultery or dishonest behavior between spouses during the marriage unless the dishonesty had a specific financial component. However, probate court judges will vigorously punish parties for making dishonest statements directly to the court, or for engaging in child alienation or other types of negative behavior once litigation is underway. In custody cases, judges will punish negative behavior by granting expanding parenting time or custody to the other parent.
How do you enforce a court order in a MA divorce?
Depending on the order, there may be several means of enforcement. One of the most common remedies is by filing a contempt action to seek compliance with the order. In order to successfully pursue a contempt remedy, you must be able to prove a clear court order and a clear violation of a clear order. In addition, you must be able to prove that it was possible for the Defendant to comply with the order. For example, if a Defendant fails to pay child support because he is in jail, he may have a good defense to a contempt action based on his genuine inability to pay. In most contempt actions, the Judge is less concerned with punishment, and more concerned with convincing the Defendant to comply with court orders moving forward. When the Judge finds a person in contempt, the Judge may order attorney fees or sentence an individual to a term in jail.
What does “contempt” mean in a MA divorce?
Contempt is short for “contempt of court.” A contempt can occur when there is a violation of a court order. In the context of family law, failure to obey a court order and pay child support or alimony, allow parenting time, provide health insurance, or other violations are considered contempt of court. Enforcement of the court order after violations have occurred can be done by a “complaint for contempt.” A contempt action is a complaint that seeks to enforce the existing court orders; mere dishonesty is not necessarily sufficient for a court to find contempt. In Massachusetts, a person who is filing a contempt action should use the official court form which can be found on our Official Forms: MA Divorce and Family Law Page. A contempt can also occur when a person violates court protocols. Examples of this could be swearing at a Judge, threatening a Judge, or even yelling at a Judge. Bad behavior that occurs in the presence of a Judge can be punished by the Judge immediately and without a trial. Typically, a judge may only find a party in contempt if there is a clear and unequivocal order and a clear disobedience of the order.
Who gets the dog/cat in a MA divorce?
Pets are personal property and are treated as “marital property” by courts in divorce actions. Although specific judges may occasionally consider which party is entitled to receive a cherished family pet, many judges will refuse to enforce “visitation” agreements that parties include in their divorce agreements. If there are children involved in a case, a judge is more likely to seriously consider which party should retain a given pet based on the children’s feelings. A Judge may consider other arguments regarding ownership of an animal: if the pet was a gift to one spouse or was owned by one spouse before marriage, then these factors may be the basis for deciding ownership. As pets are usually viewed as having no “fair market value”, judges frequently struggle to find a basis for awarding “custody” of a pet that each party greatly values for sentimental reasons.
Will I lose my health insurance when I get divorced in MA?
A former spouse may be covered under an individual’s health insurance, so long as plan rules specifically provide former spouse coverage. Unfortunately, an increasing number of employers are no longer providing medical and dental coverage for former spouses beyond an expensive rider to the policy; through COBRA; or through a separately purchased plan through the employer. A failure to consider the cost and availability of post-divorce medical and dental insurance is one of the most common mistakes individuals make during the divorce process. (It should be note that the presence or absence of former-spouse coverage is generally unrelated to the availability of medical insurance coverage for unemancipated children.)
Can I change my name back to my maiden name after my MA divorce?
Yes, the complaint for divorce has a specific section which allows you to revert back to your maiden name following the entry of judgment, if you wish to do so. If you would like to resume your maiden name, it is important to do so through your divorce, where a stand alone Petition to Change Name can be a time-consuming process.
What is the difference between “merging” the separation agreement with the judgment of divorce versus having it “survive” as an
If a portion of an agreement merges into the divorce decree, the merging portion can be modified if there is a substantial change in circumstances following the entry of judgment. Portions of an agreement that do not merge are generally said to “survive”. Surviving provisions are said to have independent legal significance. In common language, the merged portions of an agreement are modifiable after the entry of judgment, while the surviving (or non-merged) portions cannot be modified. It is important to note that the division of marital assets generally survives the judgment of divorce, and is not modifiable at a later date, while child-related issues generally merge, and can be modified after the judgment. In most cases, the question of “merger vs. survival” occurs in connection with the alimony provisions of the agreement.
I signed a prenuptial agreement, is it valid and enforceable in MA?
Prenuptial agreements are generally enforceable in Massachusetts. If there was full financial disclosure and the agreement is free of fraud and coercion, the agreement like likely be enforced by a Court. However, such an agreement cannot contract away rights of children. Property division and alimony can be addressed in a well-drafted prenuptial agreement, subject to approval by the judge. A poorly drafted prenuptial agreement may be found to be unenforceable, however, making the use of a qualified attorney especially important. For three tips on drafting prenuptial agreements, check out this blog.
Do I have to take a parenting course to get divorced in MA?
If you have children under 18, and are getting divorced in Massachusetts, you must take the parent education class. The course is designed to help parents understand the challenges children face with parents in two households. Information on this class including a list of providers can be found at the state’s trial court website. Check out this blog for a rundown to the new rules for the parent education class that went into effect on May 1, 2016.
Do I have to fill out a financial statement for a MA divorce?
Every person who appears in a divorce, child support or alimony proceeding that involves money or finances must fill out a financial statement. If your gross (pretax) income is less than $75,000.00 per year you must fill out the short form. If your income is $75,000.00 or greater, you must fill out the long form. Your financial statement is likely to be more accurate if you complete the form in advance of any court hearing. Financial statement Forms including schedules for self-employment and rental income, and instructions for filling out the forms may be found on our Official Forms: MA Divorce and Family Law Page.
What is mandatory discovery / mandatory self-disclosure in a MA divorce?
In a divorce, within forty-five days after service of the Complaint and Summons on the Defendant, both parties must provide to the other three years of records (tax returns, bank statements, investments statements, insurance information, etc.) pursuant to Supplemental Probate and Family Court Rule 410. These documents must be produced even if the opposing party does not specifically request them. If you do not have these documents, you must exercise all reasonable efforts to obtain the documents. Failure to provide these records can result in court sanctions. The rule explaining this may be found at the state’s trial court website. This rule does not prevent parties from engaging in additional discovery.
Can I hire a lawyer just to draft divorce documents for me in MA?
It depends. Any attorney can draft a Separation Agreement for an individual. Until recently, however, attorneys were prohibited from “ghostwriting” legal pleadings on behalf of unrepresented parties. However, Massachusetts has recently adopted a limited appearance representation rule for lawyers (LAR) which allows ghostwriting as long as the document reflects that it was drafted by an attorney. Under this rule, clients can hire attorneys to draft legal pleadings that the client will file on his or her own behalf in court. Only attorneys who have been trained under this rule may accept LAR clients. All of the attorneys at Lynch & Owens have been trained to accept clients on a limited appearance basis. The limited appearance rule is not effective in all courts in Massachusetts, however, and our attorneys reserve the right to decline limited representation cases.
What is the “automatic financial restraining order” in a MA divorce?
When the Plaintiff files a complaint for divorce, and when the Defendant is served with the Complaint and Summons, each party is subject to an automatic financial restraining order pursuant to Massachusetts Supplemental Probate and Family Court Rule 411. This order prohibits each party from transferring money except to pay usual and customary living and business expenses or to pay their attorney. It also prohibits parties from incurring debt in their spouse’s name, or changing life or health insurance policies. Violation of this order may be punished as a contempt of court.
Who pays my legal fees in a MA divorce?
Usually, each party pays his or her own legal fees and expenses in a divorce. However, if your spouse has sole control of the family finances, and you have no access to funds to pay legal fees, you have a right to file a motion with the Court seeking a release of funds with which you can pay your legal fees. At the end of the divorce, attorney fees may be treated as a liability incurred during the marriage and allocated between the parties as part of the property division. Moreover, the court can order legal fees to be paid by a party when the court believes that a party has behaved improperly such as failing to obey a court order (contempt of court). However, an order requiring one party to pay the legal fees of the other due to misconduct is rare; it most instances, each party is ultimately responsible for paying the legal fees incurred by his or her attorney.
Do I need a lawyer to get a divorce in MA?
An attorney is not required for you to obtain a divorce; you have the right to represent yourself. Visit our Official Forms: MA Divorce and Family Law page to see some of the required documents. As the Lynch & Owens Divorce Series illustrates, however, you may be putting yourself at a serious disadvantage if you choose to represent yourself instead of retaining counsel. Unless you and your spouse have no significant assets, children or unsettled issues, a divorce can become very complicated. An experienced family law attorney can be of great help during every stage of divorce from filing to litigation, and can significantly affect the outcome of contested divorce proceedings. At a minimum, you owe it to yourself to seek out an attorney for a consultation before you choose to proceed alone.
I don’t like my divorce agreement, can I get it changed in MA?
A modification can occur to correct mutual mistakes. In addition, “merged” issues relating to alimony and children (including parenting time and child support) may also be modified, if the moving party can demonstrate that a material change in circumstances occurred. Conversely, the division of marital assets generally cannot be modified after the final Separation Agreement has been approved by the Judge. Other than issues relating to children and alimony, post-decree modification usually does not occur unless there is a provision in the Separation Agreement to do so, or if the other party committed fraud, used undue influence, or made a misrepresentation. It is important to note that the so-called 90-day “Nisi period” generally has no effect on the modifiability of an Agreement or Judgment, where the effect of the Nisi period is limited to each party’s marital status.
How long does it take to get divorced?
A divorce will typically become final ninety days after the Judge issues a divorce decree. Prior to becoming “final”, the judgment is referred to as the “Judgment of Divorce Nisi”. After this waiting period, the Court will issue a final divorce decree called a “Judgment of Divorce Absolute”.
May practitioners consider the 90-day waiting a period an anachronism that causes needless confusion. The so-called “Nisi period” only affects the parties’ marital status; all of the substantive terms set forth in the Agreement are effective immediately upon the entry of “Judgment of Divorce Nisi”, and can be enforced through contempt proceedings if one party fails to obey the terms of the Agreement or Judgment within the 90-day period. However, the Nisi period is important, inasmuch as a party cannot re-marry prior to the expiration of the period, and parties remain married for state and federal tax purposes if the Nisi period overlaps with the last day of the tax year (i.e. December 31st).
For this reason, most Massachusetts attorneys include a separate waiver of each party’s estate claim against the other spouse, in the event one party dies prior to the end of the Nisi period. Without such a waiver, a party may be entitled to a share of the former spouse’s estate, even after their divorce agreement has been reviewed and approved by a judge. If the parties have an uncontested divorce with a separation agreement, the Judge must first approve the agreement which then has an additional thirty day waiting period. In these cases, the divorce generally becomes final 120 days after the parties appear before the Judge. However, this may be delayed a few more days as the waiting periods start when the Judge signs the decree and not when the parties appear before the Judge. The waiting periods allow the parties an opportunity to file an appeal (only in contested divorces), reconcile, or notify the court if they believe the other party fraudulently hid assets or income.
Can I get a divorce in MA even if my spouse doesn’t want to?
Yes. Massachusetts permits either spouse to obtain a divorce based on irreconcilable differences, even if the other spouse objects. Although cooperation between spouses does tend to make the divorce process easier and less expensive. Without cooperation, the divorce is a contested matter that takes longer and subsequently becomes more expensive and procedurally challenging. Ultimately, a trial may be required if one spouse will not agree to proceed with the divorce; however, even a highly resistant spouse cannot generally stop a divorce from moving forward in the end.
I was just served with divorce papers in MA. Can I fight it?
Because Massachusetts allows for divorce on the grounds of irreconcilable differences, it generally not possible for one party to prevent the divorce from eventually occurring. However, the specific timing and terms under which parties are divorced are often subject to significant variation depending on the level of agreement and cooperation between the parties.
Does having an uncontested divorce still mean I still have to go to Court in MA?
Yes, there is a court hearing involved in an uncontested divorce. The state is considered a party to every marriage and must participate in every divorce. The state is represented by a Judge who must find that the settlement is fair and reasonable to all parties, and that children are adequately protected. In addition, the Judge must protect the state in the event that one party receives public assistance. In most cases, an uncontested divorce hearing is quick and routine. Indeed, if one party cannot appear at an uncontested hearing, the Court may accept an affidavit in lieu of that party’s appearance.
Do my spouse and I have to live apart to file for a divorce in MA?
Massachusetts does not require a couple to separate before filing a divorce. If a couple can’t agree on who should move out, they can file a divorce and let a judge decide who will move.
What is an uncontested divorce in MA?
An uncontested divorce is a divorce in which both parties have agreed on all issues and put the agreement in writing for the Judge to approve. If there is even one issue that is not agreed upon, the divorce is still contested. If the parties have agreed on all issues before the divorce action is filed, they may file a joint petition for divorce. Otherwise, the divorce will start as a contested divorce and may be amended to uncontested when the parties reach an agreement.
Is a simplified divorce procedure allowed in Massachusetts?
Yes. If the parties agree on all issues, a simplified divorce procedure is available. An action for divorce based upon an irretrievable breakdown of the marriage may be commenced by filing a joint petition for divorce. The joint petition must be accompanied by a sworn affidavit alleging that the marriage has suffered an irretrievable breakdown along with a separation agreement and sworn financial statements executed by each party. The parties can request a hearing date on the same day the papers are filed.
My spouse and I already signed a separation agreement, do I still need a divorce in MA?
Yes. A separation agreement is not enforceable without approval by a Judge. The state is considered to be a party to the marriage and must approve the terms of a divorce. The state is represented by a Judge, who must determine that the separation agreement is “fair and reasonable” before the divorce can be final. Until the agreement is approved by a Judge, the enforceability of an agreement remains in question.
What are “grounds” for divorce in MA?
“Grounds” for divorce is the “reason” for divorce. The state will only allow a divorce for a recognized reason as set forth by statute. The most common reason for divorce is “irretrievable breakdown of the marriage.” Irretrievable breakdown is also called “no-fault divorce.” This means that you can get divorced if you simply no longer want to be married. In addition, Massachusetts has fault grounds for divorce including:
- Desertion for at least one year;
- Addiction to drugs/alcohol;
- Cruel and abusive treatment;
- Refusal to support spouse when able; and
- Confinement in penal institution for 5 or more years.
How do I start a divorce in MA?
If the divorce is uncontested, the two parties may file a Joint Petition for Divorce with a Separation Agreement and an Affidavit of Irretrievable Breakdown of Marriage. The Separation Agreement must address all aspects of the divorce. If the divorce is contested, the divorce proceeding is started by filing a Complaint for Divorce and serving a summons and a copy of the complaint on your spouse. The summons will be provided by the court after you file the divorce complaint. There is a filing fee for both types of divorce that can be waived if the filing party is indigent.
What is the difference between a fault divorce and a no-fault divorce?
In a no-fault divorce, the parties are not required to prove which party was at “fault” for the divorce; they are only required to prove that the marriage has broken down irretrievably or that the couple has irreconcilable differences. In a “fault” divorce, the Plaintiff must prove that the Defendant has committed a wrong that allows the Plaintiff to get a divorce. Many people think that a fault grounds divorce gives the Plaintiff an advantage in getting property division or alimony; however, this is not generally the case. The Court must consider the same factors to decide these issues in both fault and no-fault divorces, and seeking a divorce on “fault” grounds generally creates needless complication compared with a no-fault filing.
Do I need a reason to get divorced in Massachusetts?
No, you don’t need any reason to get divorced, beyond the fact that your marriage has irreconcilably broken down. Like most states, Massachusetts allows no-fault divorce, which requires only that one party no longer wants to stay married. You don’t need any additional reason.
In which month of the year do most divorces occur?January is commonly referred to as “Divorce Month.” However, there are strong indications that September or even March might be contenders as well. Check out An L&O attorney’s blog for a complete review of this issue.
How long do I have to live in Massachusetts before I can get a divorce here?If the cause of the divorce occurred outside of Massachusetts, the plaintiff must reside in Massachusetts for at least one year prior to the filing of the action. If the cause of the divorce occurred within Massachusetts, at least one of the parties must be a Massachusetts resident. Where the cause of action occurred and what constitutes “residency” can each be major factors in determining when a party may file for divorce in Massachusetts. Check out Attorney James M. Lynch’s blog on domicile and divorce jurisdiction in Massachusetts for a complete review of this issue.
Child Support, Custody & Visitation FAQ
How do child tax credits work for divorced couples under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (new federal tax law)?
The new tax law, the TCJA, included major new changes for child tax credits compared to the previous law. Although the TCJA beefed up child tax credits compared to the tax exemption structure under the old tax law, parents must be aware that full child tax credits are only available until a child turns 16 years old. For children 17 and older, the tax credit tends to be much smaller. For more details, check out our blog on how child tax credits work under the TCJA. These changes affect married, divorced and unmarried parents.
How do courts decide child custody and parenting time cases?
Like most states, Massachusetts judges determine child custody issues based on the “best interest of the child” standard. This legal standard places great power in the hands of the judges who decides child custody issues based on a very wide range of factors. For a detailed review, check out our blog on how Massachusetts courts determine child custody issues.
Is there a presumption favoring shared physical custody in Massachusetts?
Massachusetts law does not presumptively favor shared physical custody or 50/50 custody plans. Although some states have recently trended towards favoring shared physical custody as a matter of law, Massachusetts has not moved in this direction yet. A recent bill, the Massachusetts Child-Centered Family Law, sought to make shared physical custody presumptive. However, after numerous amendments, the bill eventually passed the House in a much different form, only to fail to receive a vote in the senate. For the time being, Massachusetts Probate and Family Court judges retain complete discretion to enter custody orders based solely on the best interest of the child standard.
What is the definition of legal custody in Massachusetts?
Under the Massachusetts divorce statute, “shared legal custody” is defined as the “continued mutual responsibility and involvement by both parents in major decisions regarding the child’s welfare including matters of education, medical care and emotional, moral and religious development.” Meanwhile, the statute defines “sole legal custody” as when “one parent shall have the right and responsibility to make” the same “major decisions” regarding the child. However, finding a precise definition of what rights legal custody embodies is a surprisingly difficult task.
Do my child’s grandparents have a right to seek visitation?
Grandparent visitation rights in Massachusetts are very limited. Generally speaking, for a grandparent to spend time with a child, the grandparent must have the permission of at least one of the child’s parents. On rare occasions, the court will prohibit a parent from permitting the children to be in contact with a third party (such as a grandparent) if there is a clear risk of harm to the children from the contact. Equally rarely, the court will order visitation between a grandparent and child over the objection of all living parents if the court determines that the child would suffer substantial harm without the visits.
My child just turned 18. Can I stop paying child support?
The answer is no, you should not stop paying child support without a valid court order ending your support obligation, even if your child has turned 18. Massachusetts law permits child support to continue until a child’s 21st birthday if the child remains principally dependent on one or both parents, and the law allows child support as late as age 23 if the child is enrolled full-time in a four-year undergraduate program. A parent who unilaterally stops paying child support without a court order risks being found in contempt if the child is less than 23 years old. Absent a clear old ending child support, an order in effect at the time at the time of the child’s 18th birthday will generally continue in full force and effect after said birthday until the child’s 21st or 23rd birthday.
Do I need a Court’s permission to permanently move my children out of Massachusetts?
Generally speaking, you need a Massachusetts court’s permission to permanently remove your children from Massachusetts during or after a divorce. If your child is less than five years old and was not domiciled in Massachusetts at the time of his or her birth, then the Massachusetts removal statute may not apply to your child. However, Massachusetts retains jurisdiction over a child’s custody for six months following the child’s permanent move out of Massachusetts, and parties must abide by any custody or parenting orders in effect at the time of the move, regardless of whether the removal statute specifically applies.
Does custody and visitation affect the amount of child support in MA?
Yes. Typically, if physical custody is granted to one parent, then the other parent will pay child support to the custodial parent based on the Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines. However, a traditional physical custody award assumes that the child spends approximately one third of the time visiting the other parent. If the time spent with parents varies from one-third with the visiting parent, and two-thirds with custodial parent, then child support may deviate from a strict application of the Guidelines. The Guidelines call for a different formula when time spent with the child approaches an even split. Moreover, an argument can be made that failure of a non-custodial parent to exercise his or her parenting time may result in an increase in child support obligations, due to the additional child-related costs borne by the custodial parents.
Can I stop visitation in MA if I didn’t get paid my child support?
No. While some states allow a court to suspend visitation to enforce child support payments, Massachusetts does not allow this type of “self-help”, which can result in a finding of contempt against the party who denies the other parent visitation on financial grounds.
What happens when a custody or visitation order is violated in MA?
If an order of the court is violated, a contempt action can be brought against the party who violated the order. In a contempt action, the court can fashion a remedy to correct the behavior in the future or to punish the violation. In order for a court to find a party in contempt, there must be a clear and unequivocal order and a clear disobedience by the party. While contempt is available when any order is violated, contempt for custody or visitation orders may be treated differently. The court may not punish a person who fails to exercise visitation, for example. However, a parent who refuses to exercise visitation may eventually be subject to an increase in child support or a reduction in parenting time. If a parent interferes with the other party’s parenting time, however, the consequences can be severe, ranging from emergency orders to criminal kidnapping charges in extreme circumstances.
Do I need to show my ex an itemized list of how I’m spending child support in MA?
No, courts generally do not scrutinize the exact manner in which a parent spends child support. So long as you provide shelter, food, and clothes for the child, a Judge generally will not challenge a parent’s spending patterns. However, a parent who seeks child support in excess of the Massachusetts Child Support Guidelines may be expected to detail why an order under the Guidelines is insufficient.
I don’t want to pay child support any more; can I simply forfeit my parental rights in MA?
Generally, no. The courts will only terminate parental rights when there is another person adopting the child. Such an adoption generally will not occur without the consent of the parent receiving child support. In rare cases, a step parent may agree to adopt a child, thereby releasing a biological parent from his or her child support obligation. Termination of parental rights is a rare and irreversible process, however, that courts generally avoid, absent severe abuse or neglect.
What affect does remarriage have on child support in MA?
In the vast majority of cases, remarriage has no effect on a prior child support order. However, if a new spouse enables a parent to reduce his or her employment income, or provides a drastic change in lifestyle for the parent, then the new spouse’s financial means may become an issue. Judges are generally quite reluctant to modify an existing child support based on a parent’s subsequent remarriage. If a newly married parent seeks to take advantage of his or her new spouse’s finances to obtain to change child support, however, a Judge is more likely to scrutinize the new spouse's finances.
When can child support arrears be reduced in Massachusetts?
For several decades, the answer used to be never. However, a recent Supreme Judicial Court decision, Rosen v. Rosen (2016), has created a crack in the impenetrable shield of protection surrounding child support arrears in Massachusetts. Most parents who pay child support in Massachusetts understand that their obligation to pay will eventually end. Their kids grow up and child support stops. For parents who fall behind on child support, however, the obligation to pay continues, almost without limitation. Under Rosen, there is now a very limited exception to the ordinary rule that child support arrears never go away. Check out An L&O attorney’s blog for a complete review of this issue.
Can increased parenting time reduce child support?
Yes. Under the 2013 Child Support Guidelines, parents with 67% or more of the parenting time receive “full” child support orders; parents with shared 50/50 custody only receive child support if there is a disparity in the parties’ earnings; and parents with between 50% and 33% of the parenting time receive a hybrid order, that averages “full” child support with the smaller amounts paid in most shared custody scenarios. Check out Attorney Jason V. Owens’ blog for a complete review of this issue.
When do Massachusetts judges deviate from the duration limits for alimony?
Most deviations from the durational limits for alimony occur when the spouse receiving alimony experiences health problems or unexpected hardships after a divorce. For a complete rundown, check out our blog on alimony duration deviations under the Alimony Reform Act.
Is alimony still tax deductible in Massachusetts?
As noted in multiple blogs, starting in 2019, alimony is no longer tax deductible for federal tax purposes for new divorce cases. However, alimony remains tax deductible for parties modifying a pre-2019 alimony order. In addition, Massachusetts still allows alimony payors to deduct alimony on their Massachusetts state income taxes. For more info, check out our blog on how Massachusetts still allows alimony tax deduction on state income taxes.
Can I modify a surviving alimony agreement?
The short answer is generally no. Surviving alimony agreements can be modified in very rare circumstances, but it doesn’t happen often. For a complete rundown on modifying surviving alimony agreements, check out our blog on when you can modify a surviving agreement in Massachusetts.
How does premarital cohabitation impact alimony in Massachusetts?
Recent appellate cases have made it easier to extend the duration of alimony based on premarital cohabitation. This means that if you and your spouse lived together before getting married, it may extend the length of alimony after a divorce. For a complete rundown on premarital cohabitation and alimony, check out our recent blog on using premarital cohabitation to extend alimony.
Are deviations from the “Alimony formula” allowed in Massachusetts?
Yes, the Massachusetts Alimony Reform Act permits deviations from the ordinary rule that alimony shall not exceed the receiving spouse’s need or 30 to 35 percent of the difference between the parties’ gross incomes established at the time of the order being issued.
Are stock options and RSUs considered “income” for child support and alimony purposes in Massachusetts?
Generally speaking, all taxable employment compensation is treated as income for child support and alimony purposes at the time it is received, including proceeds from exercised stock options, restricted stock units (RSUs) proceeds, performance stock units (PSUs) proceeds and other forms of non-salary compensation that are treated as taxable income in the year received. Unvested stock options, RSUs and PSUs that are acquired during a marriage may also be treated as assets subject to division in a Massachusetts divorce, although this depends on numerous factors. Non-taxable forms of employment compensation or benefits, such as employer 401K “matching”, certain forms of profit sharing, and unvested stock awards may or may not constitute income for child support and alimony purposes, often depending on complex issues of fact and law.
What is “transitional alimony” in Massachusetts?
Transitional alimony is available for marriages of less than 5 years, to transition the recipient spouse to an adjusted lifestyle or location as a result of the divorce. This type of alimony can be used to bridge the gap between being married and a single life, such as when a spouse moves out of state following a divorce.
What is “reimbursement alimony” in Massachusetts?
Reimbursement alimony is available for marriages of less than 5 years to compensate a spouse or former spouse for economic or non-economic contributions to the financial resources of his or her former spouse. An example of such alimony is when one spouse temporarily supports the other while the second spouse pursues an advanced degree.
What is “rehabilitative alimony” in Massachusetts?
Rehabilitative alimony is the periodic payment of support to a spouse or former spouse for a definite period of time based upon the expectation that the recipient will become economically self-sufficient after the passage of time. An example is payment of temporary alimony to allow the recipient spouse to obtain an education or job training.
When does the clock start running for durational alimony in Massachusetts?
In Massachusetts, durational alimony creates a presumptive termination date for marriages of less than 20 years. The duration of alimony is based on the length of the marriage, which is measured from the date of the marriage to the date of service of the complaint for divorce. However, the durational period generally only begins running upon the entry of the final judgment of divorce, subject to several exceptions. Check out Attorney Nicole K. Levy’s blog for a complete review of this issue.
How can a party enforce a Massachusetts child support or alimony order that the other party refuses to pay?
In Massachusetts, Probate and Family Courts have broad powers to enforce child support and alimony orders when a party files a Complaint for Contempt. As detailed in this blog reviewing Complaints for Contempt for violations of financial orders, the powers of the court include incarcerating a non-paying party, order the payment of legal fees and costs, and assessing interest against a non-paying party.
When it is appropriate to attribute income to a party in a child support alimony case?
In Massachusetts, child support and alimony orders are based on the respective earning capacities of the parties. If a party is underemployed, or fails to make reasonable efforts to find employment, a judge may attribute income to that party, even if the party’s actual income is significantly lower than the attribution. As detailed in this blog, judges consider numerous factors when determining whether to attribute income, including whether a party is earning less than he or she could through reasonable efforts, if the party became unemployed or accepted lesser employment voluntarily, and how long the party has been out of the workforce.
Can child support ending cause an increase in alimony?
Yes, this is a possibility. As Attorney Nicole K. Levy detailed in this blog, Massachusetts courts have held that the termination of child support can be grounds for a new or increased alimony order under certain circumstances.
Property Division FAQ
Can judges assign one spouse’s student loan debt to the other spouse in a divorce?
With student loan debt skyrocketing, an increasing number of spouses are concerned with whether their student loans (or those of their spouse) are subject to division in a divorce. The answer is that Massachusetts courts can assign student loan debt in a divorce, but many courts are hesitant to make such assignments for a variety of reasons. For a full rundown on assigning student loan debt in a divorce, check out our blog on what happens to student loans in a Massachusetts divorce. Notably, Massachusetts courts can also order one spouse make pay the other spouse’s student loan payments as a form of alimony.
How do Courts treat small businesses and self-employment income in divorce cases?
Small business ownership by a spouse impacts divorce in two ways. First, the court must determine the value of the business for the division of assets. Second, the court must analyze self-employment for child support and alimony purposes. Read our blogs on business valuation in divorce cases and self-employment income for details.
Can a settlement from a personal injury case be divided as an asset in a Massachusetts divorce?
In general, personal injury settlements are marital assets that can be equitably divided pursuant to the division of assets in a Massachusetts divorce. Indeed, as detailed in this blog, even a future interest in a potential personal injury settlement can be divided as an asset in a Massachusetts divorce.
Can a spouse’s future inheritance be divided as an asset in a Massachusetts divorce?
In Massachusetts, a future inheritance is generally considered a “mere expectancy interest”, which means that most future inheritances cannot be divided pursuant to the division of assets. However, as detailed in this blog, a future inheritance can still affect the final division of assets where it represents one party’s opportunity to acquire income and capital assets following the divorce. Moreover, interests in trusts and family gifts may be divided under some circumstances.
Does it matter whose name is on the deed/title to the marital home or other property?
Massachusetts is an equitable property division state, which means that all property owned by either party is subject to division in a divorce. This means that property held in either party’s name can be divided in a divorce. However, this does not mean that all property is automatically divided equally between two spouses in a Massachusetts divorce. In a Massachusetts divorce, the judge will examine equitable factors such as the length of the marriage, the manner in which certain property was acquired, and each party’s contribution to the acquisition, improvement and preservation of an asset. The judge will then divide the property in an equitable manner based on the considerations set forth in Ch. 208, s. 34.nnIn most longer-term marriages in Massachusetts (14+ years), the majority of the property owned in either party’s name will be divided equally between the parties. In shorter-term marriages (less than 5 years), judges will scrutinize property held in one party’s name much more carefully to determine which party was responsible for the acquisition and upkeep of the property. In medium-term marriages (6 to 13 +/- years), the analysis often falls somewhere in the middle, making a qualified divorce lawyer particularly important. In short, the name that property is held in does not necessarily matter in a Massachusetts divorce, but the manner in which marital property was acquired – including who paid for the property and when – often matters quite a lot. In contrast to the equitable division model are the eleven “community property” states, which are Alaska, Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington, Wisconsin and Puerto Rico. In these states, only property held in both parties’ names is subject to division. Property held individually (i.e. in one party’s name) at the time of the divorce is considered “separate property” and is not subject to division. In the remaining 39 equitable division states, including Massachusetts, all property owned by either party is subject to division.
Do I need to take all of my personal belongings if I move out of the marital home?
The answer to this question depends on two issues: what stage your divorce is in and how you define “personal belongings”? If a divorce has been filed, you can take items from the house, but should be mindful that the value of the property you take might be deducted from your share of the marital assets. In most situations, taking clothes, personal effects, and modest amounts of furniture will have little or no impact on the divorce. However, if a party “cleans out” the house, if often forces the remaining party to purchase new essentials, such as furniture and cutlery, and a party taking property in an overly aggressive manner can be perceived as spiteful or unreasonable. All of these concerns aside, the practical reality is that a person who is permanently moving out of a marital home often only gets one chance to take their most precious personal belongings. Where judges tend to view personal property in terms of dollar value, a party leaving the home must think carefully before leaving behind property with sentimental value.
What is a qualified domestic relations order (QDRO)?
QDROs are special orders entered by judges in divorce cases that enable a judge to divide a qualified retirement account, such as a pretax 401K, without either party needing to “withdraw” funds from the account and incur tax liability. Drafting QDROs can be challenging for divorce lawyers because QDROs include references to complex retirement plan rules and federal law that are often unfamiliar to family law attorneys.
How do I make sure my spouse doesn’t hide assets in a MA divorce?The best remedy to avoid the fraudulent concealment of assets by a spouse is to file a divorce complaint and serve your spouse. Upon filing an action for divorce, an automatic restraining order issues, constraining each party’s use of marital assets. The order is binding on the Plaintiff upon filing the divorce and binding on the Defendant upon service of process. This means that once the initial divorce papers are served on a spouse, that spouse is prohibited from transferring or hiding assets except for ordinary living expenses and to pay their attorney. If they want to use assets for another purpose, they will generally need the written consent of the spouse or an order of a Judge. Until you file a complaint for divorce, there are few if any constraints on how your spouse handles marital assets.
What happens to my retirement funds if I get divorced in MA?
Retirement funds typically fall into two categories: (1) acquired before the marriage; or (2) acquired during the marriage. In a short or medium-term marriage, retirement funds acquired before the marriage may not be subject to division in a divorce. Retirement funds acquired during the marriage are generally subject to division and treated as an asset of the marriage. There are no hard and fast rules regarding the division of retirement funds, however, and a skilled attorney may convince a judge to depart from the conventional wisdom in a given case. Retirement funds may require a special court order to divide the asset pursuant to a divorce. If so, the court will issue a Qualified Domestic Relations Order (“QDRO”) to divide the asset. The QDRO must be prepared by the parties and the retirement plan administrator may need to be consulted.
What happens to my debt if I get divorced in MA?
Debts are treated as “negative” assets and are divided as part of an equitable division of property. This means that the court will consider the same factors in allocating debts as it does in allocating other assets. Any liability that is secured by an asset usually becomes the obligation of the person who receives the property. An example is that a mortgage is secured by real estate and usually becomes the obligation of the person who lives in the real estate. An auto loan usually becomes the obligation of the person who has use of the car. Credit card debt is usually unsecured debt and is part of the general division of assets. Although courts purport to assign liabilities in the same manner as they do assets, many divorce practitioners believe that the allocation of liabilities can be less predictable – and subject to greater variation on a case-by-case basis – than the division of assets in a typical divorce.
Does a spouse’s potential to acquire future assets affect the division of assets in a MA divorce?
Yes. While the court’s core review centers on present marital assets – such as retirement accounts, real estate property, and other current assets – the court may consider other factors, such as each party's’ skills, employability and/or their respective ability to acquire future income and assets, in making its division. While a spouse generally will not be entitled to receive a share of future assets, the disposition of the current marital assets can be affected by the likelihood of future wealth for either spouse. Check out Attorney Nicole K. Levy’s blog for a complete review of this issue.
Can liquidity affect the division of assets in a divorce?
Yes. Liquidity of marital assets (like cars, cash, and capital assets) can affect the division of assets, with judges treating the division of highly liquid assets differently from illiquid assets. Check out Attorney Nicole K. Levy’s blog for a complete review of this issue.
Is Massachusetts a community property state?
No, Massachusetts is not a community property state. Massachusetts allocates property between spouses based on an equitable division of assets.
This means that the court will consider the following factors in allocating property:
- the length of the marriage
- the conduct of the parties during the marriage
- the age, health, station, occupation, amount and sources of income, vocational skills, employability, estate, liabilities and needs of each of the parties
- the opportunity of each for future acquisition of capital assets and income
- the contribution of each of the parties in the acquisition, preservation or appreciation in value of their respective estates
- the contribution of each of the parties as a homemaker to the family unit.
Equitable division does not mean an equal division of property, although an equal division of property is common. Equitable division means that the property will be divided fairly. Judges and attorneys broadly agree that the most important factor in determining the division of assets is the length of the marriage. Following a short-term marriage (15 years), a judge is often more inclined to divide the assets equally. Medium-term marriages of 5 to 14 years frequently present a challenge to a judge that can require close scrutiny of the other factors set forth above.
What is conciliation for divorce and family law cases?
Conciliation is a method for resolving disputes in divorce and family law cases through the use of a neutral third-party individual who assists the parties in reaching resolution by identifying areas of agreement as well as discussing the strengths and weaknesses of the parties’ respective positions. In conciliation, the parties and/or their attorneys present their positions to the conciliator, who evaluates and offers feedback on each party’s settlement position and factual and legal arguments.
What family law cases are resolved through conciliation?
Conciliation is an effective method for resolving most family law related matters, including divorce, child custody and child support cases between unmarried parents, modification cases and contempt cases. In general, a conciliator can assist parties in the resolution of any form of family law dispute that can be litigated in the Probate & Family Court. Conciliators can be utilized during the pendency of a litigation, or prior to litigation beginning.
What is the role of the conciliator in divorce and family law cases?
The conciliator’s role blends elements of a mediator, an arbitrator and a judge. Each party and/or their respective attorney presents the conciliator with a memorandum and/or relevant pleadings summarizing the nature of the dispute and each party’s position. After reviewing these materials, the conciliator meets with the parties and attorneys and listens to each side’s oral presentation. Like a judge or an arbitrator, the conciliator offers feedback on the relative strengths and weaknesses of each party’s case and can also offer his or her perspective on which party’s position the conciliator believes is more likely to prevail at a trial. Like a mediator, the conciliator engages directly with the parties regarding their respective settlement positions, working towards resolution; like a judge, the conciliator can make direct comments as to the nature of the case.
How is conciliation different from mediation?
Conciliation is very similar to evaluative mediation, but allows the neutral third party to play different role than most mediators. Most divorce and family mediation is “facilitative”, which is to say, the mediator attempts to guide the clients towards resolution without injecting the mediator’s subjective opinion into the negotiation unnecessarily. However, some clients seek out “evaluative” mediation, in which the mediator offers specific feedback and opinions on each client’s position, including the mediator’s opinion on how a judge would likely rule on individual issues.
Conciliation bears several similarities with evaluative mediation. Like evaluative mediation, the conciliator actively offers his or her opinions on each client’s positions, including how a judge would likely rule on specific issues. The main differences between conciliation and evaluative mediation are largely stylistic. Most (although not all) mediations do not include the direct participation of attorneys. In contrast, most conciliations (although not all) include the direct participation of attorneys. Unlike most mediators, conciliators generally ask attorneys for the participants to submit memos setting out each client’s legal position.
Most conciliations include periods of “argument” in which each attorney presents their client’s case, and the conciliator listens and provides feedback, much like a judge. Most conciliations (although certainly note all) occur after litigation has already been filed in court. Although mediation also occurs during active litigation, it is more common for clients to pursue mediation prior to the commencement of formal litigation.
Despite these differences, however, there are strong similarities between evaluative mediation and conciliation. In both processes, the goal is settlement. Both conciliators and evaluative mediators occupy a more robust, assertive role compared to the more passive role of a facilitative mediator. Although both conciliators and evaluative mediators offer direct feedback on the strengths and weaknesses of each party’s arguments, neither has the authority to enter binding orders the way a judge or arbitrator would.
The main differences between conciliators and evaluative mediators come down to the degree of formality. Conciliation is designed to more closely mimic a courtroom process, with the submission of memos, the participation of attorneys, and the conciliator expected to preside over argument in a somewhat authoritative manner. Evaluative mediation tends to be somewhat less formal, with less emphasis on each side “arguing their case” and the mediator occupying a somewhat less formal and authoritative role.
Of course, once negotiations get started, it can be almost impossible to tell the difference between a conciliator and evaluative mediator. Both roles often involve the third-party neutral rolling up his or her sleeves and pushing the parties towards resolution in very similar ways.
How is conciliation different from arbitration?
An arbitrator is essentially a trial judge that parties independently choose to decide their case through a “private” trial. Most arbitrators conduct what essentially amounts to a trial, with documentary exhibits and witnesses, all subject to the rules of evidence. The arbitrator’s binding decision effectively substitutes for a trial court’s ruling and is not generally subject to appeal, except in limited circumstances. Because an arbitrator’s role is so similar to that of a judge, the arbitrator is limited from participating directly in settlement discussions in much the same way as a trial court judge. Indeed, settlement negotiations are generally confidential and occur outside of the judge/arbitrator’s presence.
Like an arbitrator, a conciliator provides feedback (and even a written memorandum, if requested) evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of each party’s case. The conciliator may also hear “argument” from each attorney that sounds quite a lot like a court hearing or arbitration session.
Unlike in arbitration, however, the conciliator’s opinions are not binding on the parties. Unlike most arbitrators, a conciliator participates directly in settlement negotiations, in which the conciliator often plays a role similar to an evaluative mediator. In short, an arbitrator’s main focus is hearing arguments and evidence and making a binding decision. A conciliator’s main focus is on listening to each party’s position and assisting the parties in reaching a settlement.
(It should be noted that many retired judges can be hired as either arbitrators or conciliators. Retired judges are often uniquely qualified to serve as arbitrators because the role of judge and private arbitrator are so similar. However, where conciliation is more similar to mediation than arbitration in many ways, it sometimes makes sense for parties to seek qualified mediators to serve as their conciliator rather than a retired judge.)
How is conciliation different from going to trial in a courtroom?
First and foremost, a conciliator is not subject to the scheduling and time constraints of a trial court judge. Conciliations can generally be scheduled quickly, based on flexible schedule – in contrast to the months (or years) of delay parties experience in the trial court.
In some ways, family law conciliation is similar to how some judges conduct pretrial conferences in the Probate & Family Court. In pretrial conferences, attorneys for the parties submit memoranda to the Court summarizing their client’s arguments and positions, and the judge often provides feedback during the hearing regarding how he or she might rule at trial. However, because a judge must maintain impartiality and reserve his or her final decision for trial, after all evidence is submitted, most judges take a cautious approach to offering feedback at a pretrial conference. The judge often notes that he or she has not made up his or her mind about any issue, and any feedback he or she offers is only preliminary. Finally, the judge at a pretrial conference generally only plays a limited role in settlement talks, where settlement negotiations are confidential and generally conducted outside of the presence of the judge.
Unlike a judge or arbitrator, a conciliator is not the final decision maker in the party’s case. This means that the conciliator does not need to reserve his or her opinions until all of the evidence is presented at a final trial on the merits. The conciliator is encouraged to offer his or her opinions based on each party’s presentation of the evidence, then participate directly in the settlement negotiation process. This can help facilitate settlement.
Can each party be represented by an attorney during conciliation?
Most conciliations involve parties who are represented by attorneys, but it is not required. A conciliation session most often includes two parties and two attorneys in family law cases. Attorneys can play an important role in the conciliation process by helping to explain the conciliator’s feedback to their respective clients.
Do parties ever participate in conciliation without attorneys?
Although most conciliations involve attorneys, it is not unusual for self-represented parties to participate in conciliation. In some instances, it may make sense for unrepresented parties to participate in evaluative mediation, which is very similar to conciliation, but which takes place in a slightly less formal manner.
How do parties usually end up in conciliation?Most (although not all) conciliation clients come to the process after hitting and impasse in litigation. With the Covid crisis drastically reducing access to courts, many parties and their attorneys are now seeking conciliation where judges are simply not available. Conciliation often represents a middle ground between fully committing to mediation vs. continuing with litigation. Because most conciliations include the participation of attorneys, the conciliator is often suggested and/or selected by the attorneys.
How has conciliation been impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic?
Delays to trial time and court availability due to Covid have drastically increased demand for conciliation for parties who are seeking to litigate their case but find that courts simply are not available to advance case in timely manner. Conciliation allows parties to receive feedback from qualified third party in a speedy and efficient manner without fully “pausing” case to attempt mediation. Moreover, because conciliation offers a more robust format than mediation, litigants often find that conciliation offers a preferable forum compared to mediation, which tends to be a less authoritative process.
Can conciliation be performed virtually using Zoom or Virtual Platforms?
Absolutely. Conciliation is well suited to Zoom and other virtual meeting platforms.
Will my conciliator write a report that can be viewed by the judge in my court case?
Parties and/or their attorneys can request a written report from the conciliator that summarizes the issues reviewed, the status of negotiations and/or the conciliator’s feedback on each party’s position. Parties can request a report that can be submitted to the judge with the clear, written consent of both parties. Parties may also request a settlement summary in which conciliator prepares memorandum summarizing the status of negotiations, much like a mediator might prepare.
The parties and their attorneys have a great deal of control over what kind of report the conciliator prepares, if any.
How much does conciliation cost?
At South Shore Divorce Mediation, we require a retainer for 4.0 hours of work at an hourly rate of $350.00 per hour for conciliation. This includes 1.0 hours to review pleadings/memos, and 3.0 hours for the conciliation session and follow up. If parties request a memo/report, this will generally cost an additional 1.0 hours. Please visit our pricing page for more detail.
It is not uncommon for the parties to request additional sessions with a conciliator, particularly if the parties and attorneys believe that progress is being made towards settlement. Additional time is billed at the hourly rate of $350.00 per hour.
Who pays for conciliation?
In many cases, parties share the cost of the conciliation. However, it is also not unusual for one party to pay the fee of the conciliator. In some cases, it makes sense for the conciliator’s fee to be paid from the client fund accounts held by one or both attorneys.
The conciliator’s opinions are not impacted by which party pays the fee.
What preparation is required for conciliation?
Generally, a conciliator will require a memorandum and financial statement from each party. In some instances, an existing pretrial memorandum and recent financial statement is an appropriate substitute. Conciliators usually also wants copies of relevant pleadings and orders.
For clients attending conciliation without an attorney, it may make sense for the client to spend some time researching the conciliation process.
Are all conciliators attorneys or retired judges?
Because conciliators offer specific feedback on the strength of each party’s position, nearly all qualified conciliators are practicing family law attorneys and/or retired judges. As noted above, retired judges are often highly qualified to offer feedback to clients regarding contested legal issues. However, where the real goal of conciliation is to seek resolution of the case, many clients and attorneys feel that a conciliator’s most important skill set is the ability to mediate issues once the conciliation process is underway.
Are there licensing requirements for conciliators in Massachusetts?
There is no licensing requirement for private conciliators in Massachusetts. Some Massachusetts Probate & Family Court operate public conciliation programs in which parties are directly referred by the court to conciliators who are certified by the court. At SSDM, all of our conciliators are statutory mediators and experienced family law attorneys.
Need a Conciliator or Conciliation-Friendly Attorney for your Massachusetts Case?
Do you need a conciliator for your divorce or family law case? Our statutory mediators are experienced family law attorneys who serve as conciliators for divorce and family law cases throughout Massachusetts. Ask your attorney if conciliation is right for your case. In addition, we act as counsel representing clients in conciliation sessions. If you need a conciliator for your Massachusetts divorce or family law case, or an attorney to represent you in conciliation, please call us at (781) 253-2049. We provide virtual conciliation services via Zoom.
Divorce Mediation FAQ
What is a divorce mediator and what do they do?
A divorce mediator is a trained, neutral third party who guides divorcing spouses through the negotiation of a final separation agreement that can be entered by a Massachusetts Probate and Family Court judge without the need for litigation. Although many divorce mediators are attorneys, there is not a requirement under Massachusetts law that a mediator meet any special educational requirements beyond those outlined in Ch. 233, s. 23C. Many spouses seek out experienced divorce attorneys to serve as mediators because divorce attorneys are intimately familiar with the issues raised in a divorce, as well as the technical specifications of a separation agreement. It is important to note, however, that a divorce mediator is not offering legal advice, even if he or she is a trained attorney.
Divorce mediation is a non-adversarial and voluntary procedure for conflict resolution. It is not the mediator’s job to instruct the parties to agree on certain issues. Instead, the mediator’s role is to facilitate negotiation and agreement by asking the right questions, identifying and finalizing areas of agreement, and assisting in the preparation of a final separation agreement which effectively contains the mutual agreements of the parties.
How does the divorce mediation process work?
Many books have been written on divorce mediation, making it impossible to explain the entire mediation process in a short Q&A. However, we can say several things with confidence:
- The parties will schedule a meeting with one of our mediators. In general, our mediators will avoid speaking on the phone with each individual spouse – a conference call with both spouses is less problematic, and ensures that each spouse feels he or she is working with a neutral, impartial mediator.
- The mediator will meet with both spouses, review the facts of your marriage and family, and identify what goals each spouse has for the divorce and/or mediation process.
- The mediator will seek to identify areas of broad agreement that the spouses already hold, while carefully exploring and identifying other areas that the spouses may not have discussed or disagree about at the time of the meeting.
- The mediator will discuss the concrete steps that are likely to occur within the couple’s mediation, and the parties will determine whether to retain South Shore Divorce Mediation to mediate their divorce.
- The mediator and spouses will set out a proposed schedule, goals, and a methodology for finalizing areas of agreement and for working through areas of disagreement.
- Following mediation sessions, the mediator will prepare a written summary of each party’s respective position, including issues that are resolved or remain in dispute, and set the agenda for the tasks each spouse (and the mediator) must complete before the next session, as well as the agenda for the next session.
- As the mediation progresses, the focus will tighten on the specific issues that require resolution. These can include custody, division of property and assets, child support, and any other issues that arise.
- As consensus is reached, the mediator will aid in developing a formal, written separation agreement that embodies each area of agreement the parties share.
- After producing a final mediated divorce agreement, most spouses will choose to present the agreement to an independent attorney (who may be suggested by the mediator) prior to finalizing the agreement.
- After reaching a final agreement, the mediator will generally assist in the production of a Joint Petition for Divorce and associated documents for the Court.
- After receiving a date from the Court, the parties will appear before a judge in a brief, uncontested hearing. There, the judge will review the agreement to determine that it is “fair and reasonable.” If it is, the judge will approve the spouses’ divorce.
The specific sequence above can vary from mediation to mediation, depending on the issues and concerns presented. However, most mediations follow this basic framework towards resolution.
How long does a divorce mediation take to complete?
The duration of a specific mediation is largely a function of the motivation level of the spouses. If spouses are eager to complete their divorce quickly, the mediator is generally able to accelerate the process to a few months (or even weeks). Motivation is not the only factor, however. The need to obtain and review extensive financial records or address complex financial issues often requires the spouses and mediator alike to slow down to ensure that complex issues receive sufficient attention and emphasis. If one parent has recently left the home, spouses will often slow the mediation down before finalizing an agreement to allow the children to adjust and to try out new parenting schedules. Emotional barriers, including anger or a spouse’s desire to reconcile rather than proceed with a divorce, may need to be addressed before spouses can proceed to substantive issues such as parenting time, child support or alimony, or the division of marital assets. Lastly, if each spouse reviews a mediated agreement with an outside attorney, additional time may be needed to allow for the attorney’s schedule and the resolution of any final details.
Each mediation is unique, so there isn’t a standard answer. The timing depends on the number of issues, their complexities, and whether there is an agreement on any of the issues. Couples come to mediation at different stages in the divorce process, and the duration of a particular mediation will often depend on how eager the spouses are to complete their divorce and the degree to which they enter mediation with a clear idea of the main issues they agree on.
Can my spouse and I mediate our divorce if we don’t get along?
It is not necessary for spouses to get along for divorce mediation to be successful. The first and most important ingredient in any divorce mediation is a shared desire by both spouses to avoid the litigation process. From this single shared goal flows a series of shared interests and desires that are often obscured by high emotions, anger or anxiety. Part of the mediator’s job is to aid spouses in recognizing their shared interest and prioritizing these interests over secondary feelings such as anger, betrayal or sadness.
To be clear, a mediation cannot ultimately be successful if the feelings of hostility and anger between spouses are so powerful that the negative emotions overwhelm a couple’s ability to reach common ground and mutual understanding. However, a significant part of the mediation process centers on processing negative emotions by helping each spouse prioritize his or her emotions in the larger context of a divorce. So long as there is an agreement to mediate, a successful mediation is possible.
How much does divorce mediation cost?
The cost depends on the time involved in the mediation. Generally speaking, between two identical divorces, the divorce that is mediated will cost less than the divorce that is litigated. There are several reasons for this. First, instead of both parties paying for separate attorneys, the parties instead share the cost of a single mediator. In addition, the litigation process requires a great deal of formal obligations for each attorney: They must attend mandatory court hearings, exchange mandatory discovery, and take trial preparation steps from early in the case to protect and prepare each client for a potential trial. Mediation, on the other hand, is a voluntary process that spouses engage in without the pressure of court-imposed deadlines and multiple litigation-driven steps, such as extensive discovery, deposition, and multiple court hearings.
As with retaining an attorney, mediators charge an hourly fee. While it is difficult to predict the ultimate cost, the mediator will review the many ways in which spouses can control mediation costs through their own actions, along with the events and issues that tend to increase the cost of mediation, including extensive document review and scheduling multiple mediation sessions to address multiple narrow issues.
What is mediation?
Mediation is one of the ways that you can resolve a divorce. The hallmarks of divorce mediation are the non-adversarial format and the fact that it happens almost entirely outside of the courtroom. Mediation is also completely voluntary and can only be initiated by the agreement of both spouses.
As a dispute resolution process, mediation focuses on communication and mutual agreement. The spouses meet with a mediator who, over the course of several sessions, identifies points of agreement and conflict, and then helps the spouses resolve their conflicts in a way that is mutually beneficial. The cooperation involved in a mediated divorce saves both spouses a considerable amount of stress and money, and can also keep everything private and make the process go quickly.
Are mediation sessions confidential?
In Massachusetts, the confidentiality of the divorce mediation process is protected by law. This can make a huge difference in your divorce because some very intimate details about your marriage are bound to come up in the process. If this happens in a divorce litigation, those details will often be included in a court filing, which is a public record and therefore accessible by members of the public.
In a divorce mediation with a qualified mediator, on the other hand, the confidentiality of any information that gets exchanged during mediation is protected by Ch. 233, s. 23C, so long as both spouses sign a participation agreement before the mediation begins. Importantly, this confidentiality applies even if the mediation process proves to be unsuccessful. This prevents any of the documents or the disclosures made during mediation from getting out into the public eye, protecting your privacy and allowing you to fully participate in the mediation without worrying about divulging something you do not want your neighbors to know about.
In general, a statutory mediator cannot be subpoenaed to testify in court, nor can any of her work product – including notes, documents or recollections of what either party may have said during the course of the mediation – admissible.
Who is responsible for initiating a divorce mediation?
This is a bit of a trick question. In most instances, either spouse can identify a mediator, call or email the mediator’s office, and schedule an initial meeting. However, many mediators are careful to avoid speaking with one spouse without the other present, particularly at the earliest stages of a mediation, to avoid any perception of favoritism by either spouse.
Our front desk accepts calls and emails from either spouse, but we generally ask that both spouses participate in the initial contact with the mediator, whether that is by phone (via a conference call with both spouses) or an in-person meeting. It is important for a mediator to maintain not only impartiality, but the appearance of impartiality. If one spouse believes the mediator has a special relationship with the other spouse, this can undermine the trust that is crucial to the mediation process. For this reason, we try to involve both spouses from the earliest stages of a mediation.
It is important to note that once a mediation is underway, spouses will sometimes state a preference for meeting individually with a mediator, outside of the presence of the other spouse. This is often a useful technique, but private meetings between one spouse and the mediator should generally only occur with the informed consent of each spouse.
Can we mediate even if we have already retained attorneys?
Absolutely. Like most divorce mediators, we suggest that spouses review their final mediated divorce agreement with an experienced family law attorney who represents only that spouse’s interests. Moreover, for divorces that involve complex financial issues or other complicated factors, it may be helpful for spouses to secure private attorneys as mediation coaches. An attorney acting as a mediation coach generally does not appear at mediation sessions, or directly contact the mediator, but instead works in the background, assisting the spouse he or she is coaching to prepare for the mediation and understand the legal issues involved. Although a mediation coach represents an additional expense, this form of representation is often considerably less costly than retaining an attorney for divorce litigation.
In general, it is helpful for mediating spouses to work with attorneys who are considered “mediation friendly”. Being “mediation friendly” does not necessarily mean that the attorney is a mediator him or herself. It simply means that the attorney should have an understanding of the mediation process, and tailor his or her services to encourage – rather than disrupt – the mediation process.
A divorce attorney who thinks only in terms of litigation can be unhelpful when operating from the sidelines of a mediation for a variety of reasons, ranging from a desire to micromanage the process to self-serving concerns about legal fees. If one or both spouses indicates that he or she would like the support of a mediation-friendly attorney, our mediators are always happy to suggest the names of mediation-friendly attorneys for the spouse to contact. In the end, the decision of who to hire as a mediation coach during a mediation – or whether to hire anyone at all – rests solely with each individual spouse.
When can mediation begin?
Either spouse can initiate a divorce mediation by calling our office. Mediation itself can begin as soon as both spouses are ready. Since there are no court filings, the mediator and spouses are not working on the court’s timeline. This allows you each to decide when to begin – and how. Our mediator meet with a couple first and discusses some of the basic information that will be needed. Some people decide they want to gather information to present to the mediator before the first meeting, while others prefer to meet with the mediator first to establish a preliminary list of documents for each spouse to gather.
Part of the beauty of mediation is the freedom to work on your own timeline. We have had spouses come in who have a reached a basic agreement, but need the details worked out and assistance with the drafting process; we also have met with people who do not get along, and have not spoken about the divorce, but know they need to reach an agreement somehow. If both people feel ready to begin, then we begin.
How long does it take to schedule mediation?
Mediation can begin as soon as both spouses are ready. The initial meeting allows both spouses to get an idea of how mediation will work and get a briefing of the process. After the initial meeting, the first session can be scheduled as soon as possible and/or convenient for the spouses. Maybe you and your spouse decide you each need two weeks to process and gather information – maybe you decide you both want to meet and discuss the issues immediately, building on the momentum of the initial meeting.
The mediator will offer her thoughts regarding a successful schedule, but what it really comes down to what is best for you and your spouse. We offer flexible meeting times, and if necessary, can meet outside the office.
What should I bring to the mediation?
For the initial mediation meeting, spouses are encouraged to bring whatever documents each think may be relevant. However, the main purpose of the initial meeting is to review the process, gather information, and begin establishing basic goals, such as selecting a mediation schedule moving forward. After that, what you bring is really determined by the issues that need to be discussed.
For divorces or modifications that deal with financial issues, spouses will likely need to begin gathering financial information. For divorce or custody issues, documents relating to the children may be relevant. Ultimately, the necessary documents are determined by a couple’s individual issues and the resolution that is ultimately being sought. Oftentimes, litigants in a court case are required to provide mountains of information that may or may not be relevant, due to discovery requirements or subpoenas. In mediation, the goal is to focus on your specific issues, gathering only the records that directly affect your solutions.
Can we start the mediation process before filing divorce papers?
You can start the divorce mediation process right away, without any court filing. You may also start even if you or your spouse have filed papers with the court.
We work with people who are seeking to avoid the trying court process by filing an uncontested divorce or agreed upon stipulation. We also work with people who have filed, but are now exploring other options. Indeed, sometimes mediation is recommended to people who have filed for divorce, or are in the middle of a case! The mediation process is flexible to accommodate couples who want to hit “pause” on their divorce litigation while searching for another solution. It is not unusual for spouses who have hit an impasse when negotiating a divorce agreement through lawyers to try mediation to break the deadlock.
For people who have not filed, there is no need to do so. The Massachusetts Probate Courts have a process to enables couples who have reached an agreement to submit their agreement and paperwork in a single court filing.
Does it take both spouses to initiate a divorce mediation?
Both spouses need to be ready and willing to mediate, but it is not absolutely necessary that you each initiate mediation together. Our office tries to meet with a couple together to ensure you are both engaged in the process, and to avoid any perception favoritism at the early stages of a mediation. Our office often hears from one spouse, initially, and will request that a date be schedule at a time convenient to both spouses. This way, neither spouse feels left out of the process early in the mediation.
Will you have to appear in court after your mediation?
It depends on the type of case. For a divorce, you will have to appear in court once, so the judge can review your mediated agreement to ensure that it is fair and reasonable. When an agreement and all the requisite paperwork is submitted as an uncontested Joint Petition for Divorce, the court will schedule a hearing a date for your agreement to be reviewed by the judge. While no-one enjoys appearing in court (except lawyers), generally if there an agreement, your “case” will be called quickly and your day in court will be brief.
For other instruments, such as mediated agreements for modification, the courts have a process for approving an agreement without the need for either person to appear in court! As long as the requisite paperwork is filed, the judge can decide to administratively allow a modification agreement without anyone appearing in court.
Is there anything that a mediator cannot do during the mediation process?
Because the mediator is a neutral third party whose role is to help the parties come to their own agreement, mediators cannot make decisions about the divorce on behalf of either spouse or help one spouse at the expense of the other. This includes giving legal advice during the mediation. Additionally, the mediator cannot require a spouse to take a specific action, like agree to a proposed solution or even be present at one of the mediation sessions, by placing sanctions or other penalties on the non-performing spouse.
These limitations gives the divorce mediation process its hard-earned reputation for flexibility and fairness. By having a mediator who can only facilitate, not dictate, how negotiations progress, mediation allows the spouses to develop their own solutions to their own unique situation.
What is the role of each party during the mediation process?
During divorce mediation, there are three individuals involved: two spouses and a mediator.
The role of each spouse in divorce mediation is to negotiate fairly and calmly, and be ready to listen and accept solutions that he or she might not have come up with on his or her own. This cooperative attitude is the backbone of the mediation process, and if one spouse fails to cooperate, mediation becomes far more difficult to accomplish successfully. This is why it is so important for each spouse to take their role as a negotiator seriously, and to give the process a chance to produce results.
As for the mediator, his or her role is varied, with mediators frequently customizing their approach depending on the needs of the spouses in the divorce mediation. One of the main roles of a mediator is as a referee or observer of the discussion. By acting as a neutral third party, the mediator serves as the meeting organizer – bringing both spouses into the conversation and moving it along productively – and communication facilitator. However, the mediator also serves to educate the spouses of the issues that should be resolved, and whether their proposed solutions overlook or adequately solve problems that often come up during and in the years following a divorce.
Finally, part of a mediator’s role is to use their experience and knowledge of the divorce process to inject practical wisdom into the divorce at issue by asking pointed questions, using solutions from prior mediations as examples, and sometimes even by serving as devil’s advocate to challenge a potentially weak proposal for the purpose of making it stronger.
When is the best time to start mediation?
The best time to start mediation is whenever you and your spouse each feel ready to start mediation. This can come at any point during the divorce process. You can start going to mediation before you and your spouse have finalized your decision to separate. Or you can pursue mediation after filing a Complaint for Divorce. The key is that both spouses needed to be ready. Many former spouses mediate post-divorce issues after the divorce is finalized.
In general, spouses who start mediation early on in their divorce tend to find that they get better results from the process. When spouses attend mediation sessions early, they can identify which issues are going to be contentious from the outset and can work to find mutually satisfactory resolutions before either spouse becomes too emotional or entrenched. If there is already animosity between the spouses when mediation starts, it can make it more difficult for the mediation process to move things forward in a productive way.
How can I prepare for a mediation session?
Being prepared for a mediation session is the best ways to make sure it goes smoothly. If you are not prepared for a session, it can prolong the mediation process and increase costs over time. A lack of preparation can also frustrate your spouse and could increase stress levels. If being unprepared becomes a habit, the mediation process can sputter, making the others stakeholders doubt the non-performing individual’s commitment.
Typically, a mediator will finish every session with a summary of what was accomplished and what will be covered in the next session. This often includes a checklist of information and documents that you will need to provide in the next session – basically a homework assignment for the next session. While this often proves helpful for subsequent sessions, it will not help you prepare for your first session.
For your first mediation session, it is often helpful to have a complete list of the assets that you own (or you think you might own). This includes bank accounts and retirement funds, real estate, vehicles, and valuable personal belongings, as well as anything else that might be valuable, plus all of your outstanding debts. Financial records relating to you or your spouse’s income are also helpful, as is a list of your recurring expenses. School records relating to your children, or specific child-related costs, can also be helpful. Together, these records can give all involved a sense of a couple’s current lifestyle and flag potential conflicts or sources of discussion to be ironed out during the subsequent mediation sessions.
Finally, it is helpful to reflect on your goals for the future before the first mediation session begins. Having an idea of the outcomes you are seeking after the divorce is complete can help you negotiate more effectively and helps the mediator prioritize issues.
Who prepares the divorce agreement in a mediation?
You and your spouse, with the help of the mediator.
Mediation is meant to be a wholly collaborative process that allows you, your spouse, and the mediator each play a role in crafting a divorce agreement that is fair, equitable and legally binding. You and your spouse provide all of the “raw materials” for the divorce agreement. Meanwhile, the mediator guides you into productive conversations that are meant to draw out key facts and flesh out potential roadblocks that could become a source of conflict in the years ahead. The facts teased out by the mediator fuel more solutions for you and your spouse as all of the potential conflicts that are foreseeable for your post-divorce life are identified and discussed. Finally, the mediator helps you and your spouse articulates you have made within the context of a Separation Agreement that can withstand scrutiny.
Where decisions have been made by you and your spouse in an atmosphere that promotes creative conflict resolution and cooperation, it is important that the divorce agreement be fair and reasonable towards you and your spouse. In general, Separation Agreements that are the product of cooperative negotiations are subject to fewer violations, and better stand the test of time than judgments or agreements that are the product of years of litigation.
All that said, the reality is that many spouses who are engaged in mediation obtain assistance from mediation-friendly attorneys who act as Mediation Coaches. Although Mediation Coaches do not attend sessions or interact with the mediator or other spouse, they often play an important role in the crafting of a final Separation Agreement. Unlike the mediator, who must maintain neutrality at all times, an attorney acting as Mediation Coach is loyal only to his or her client. Mediation-friendly attorneys acting this role understand how to educate their clients, so that clients become more effective mediation participants, leading to clearer goals and outcomes.
How do divorce documents get filed after mediation is complete?
In Massachusetts, even divorces that are completely resolved through the mediation process must to be filed in court to be effective. If a mediated divorce agreement is not filed in court, it will not be enforced as a divorce.
If your mediator is an attorney, you can generally rely on him or her to help you prepare a Joint Petition for Divorce, as well as supporting forms and filing instructions. Mistakes in the filing process can raise legal implications down the road, so preparing and filing a petition properly is crucial. The mediators at South Shore Divorce Mediation are all experienced divorce attorneys.
If your mediator is not an attorney, a greater burden may fall on you and your spouse to file the property documents with the court. In Massachusetts, the proper documents to file depend on the nature of your divorce. Divorces featuring children under the age 18 require spouses to file additional documents, and attend the Parent Education Class prior to an agreement being finalized.
Will the mediator come to court with you if you need to make an appearance?
Because divorce mediation is conducted outside of the courtroom between you and your spouse, there is often only one single court appearance that needs to be made over the course of the entire divorce – i.e. when the divorce papers need to be filed with the court. If parties each want the mediator to attend the hearing, this can generally be arranged, with certain limitations. For example, spouses must remember that even if their mediator is a divorce attorney, the mediator would not be acting as an attorney for either party (or both) at the hearing, and would not give legal advice. Moreover, most mediators will be very reluctant to appear as a witness before a judge, even in an uncontested hearing, where the work product of a mediation is barred from disclosure in any court proceeding.
In rare occasions, spouses currently going through a divorce mediation may need to make a court appearance for matters related to their divorce. For example, the tension in divorce is so high that it leads one spouse to file a restraining order against the other, or child custody needs prove to be contentious enough that a temporary court order becomes necessary to prevent a situation from escalating. In these instances, Massachusetts law protects mediators from being served with subpoenas or from otherwise being compelled to testify on behalf of one or both spouses.
Will our mediated divorce agreement be enforceable?
Divorce agreements that are made through the mediation process are just as enforceable as agreements that are the product of litigation, or judgments entered by a judge after trial.
Throughout the mediation process, the mediator’s goal is to craft a well-written divorce agreement that is free of ambiguity or uncertainty. In this regard, a mediated Separation Agreement is no different from an agreement prepared by attorneys through litigation. The only difference between a mediated Separation Agreement, and one prepared by attorneys during litigation, is the methodology employed in reaching resolution. In either instance, the agreement is incorporated in the Judgment of a Divorce and becomes enforceable as a court order thereafter.
What happens if my spouse doesn’t follow our mediated agreement?
A valid divorce agreement that is the result of the divorce mediation process is legally binding in all the same ways as an agreement that is the product of litigation. Accordingly, once a mediated divorce agreement has been finalized and approved by a judge, a spouse who fails to comply with the terms of the agreement may be subject to a contempt action. The contempt powers of Probate and Family Court judges are broad, and violations can result in anything from financial sanctions to the loss of parenting time to incarceration.
However, enforcement problems tend to be rarer for divorce agreements that are the result of mediation compared to agreements that are the product of litigation. This is because mediated divorce agreements represent terms that both spouses agreed upon cooperatively, during the mediation process, while litigated agreements often arise out of coercive pressure that arises from the adversarial nature of a contested divorce.
Can you have someone else with you during the mediation sessions?
It may be possible to include third parties in a mediation, but it is important to resolve the groundworks for the involvement of outside individuals before inviting them to mediation sessions. In particular, outside experts such as financial experts or child therapists can aid the mediation process by presenting their expertise for both parties. (It should be noted, of course, that such third party specialists often need to be paid for their time.)
Mediation that includes each party’s use of a mediation-friendly attorney can also be productive, so long as the spouses, mediator and attorneys all agree to appropriate ground rules before meeting in person. In general, however, divorce mediation thrives on separating spouses talking candidly and honestly with one another, which is typically easier with only the spouses and mediator in attendance. If both spouses bring an attorney to the mediation sessions, the lawyers have an invariable tendency to dominate the conversation (we make this observation with affection, given that our mediators are themselves lawyers). Perhaps most importantly, the direct involvement of attorneys greatly inflates the price of mediation.
It is important to distinguish between the direct involvement of attorneys in the mediation process and the far less direct involvement of lawyers as Mediation Coaches. An attorney acting as a Mediation Coach does not attend mediation session; he or she assists a spouse with the mediation process from the outside, offering advice on negotiations and specific legal issues. Most mediators encourage spouses to use mediation-friendly attorneys as Mediation Coaches, as these attorneys can provide legal advice and undivided loyalty to a spouse in a manner that a neutral mediator cannot.
Will the mediator meet separately with each of us during the sessions?
During a mediation session, it not unusual for a mediator to split the spouses and meet with each spouse separately, provided each spouse agrees to this arrangement. Speaking separately with each spouse helps the mediator better understand each spouse’s separate concerns, worries, and goals. Spouses often have their guard up in the presence of other spouse, and separate meetings between each spouse and the mediator allows the mediator to aid each spouse in communicating in a manner that facilitates cooperation instead of conflict.
It is important, however, to address the elephant in the room when it comes to individual meetings during the divorce mediation process: The core value of a good mediator is their neutrality. Good mediators do not use individual meetings to favor one spouse over the other or to provide important information to one, but not the other spouse. Because it is precisely this neutrality that makes mediation such a good tool for resolving a divorce, successful mediators take impartiality extremely seriously, and do not put their neutrality into jeopardy.
Because maintaining impartiality is paramount, many mediators will limit their individual meetings with a spouse to scheduled mediation sessions where each spouse is physically present in an adjoining room. While couples sometimes agree that each spouse may meet with the mediator on his or her own, outside of the context of a scheduled session, these arrangements must be handled carefully to ensure that each spouse maintains trust in the process.
Are divorce agreements created through mediation legally binding?
Yes, a divorce agreement that is the result of the divorce mediation process is just as legally binding as an agreement hashed out by attorneys during litigation (or ordered by a judge after trial). Indeed, one might say that the whole point of the mediation process is to produce an enforceable, legally binding agreement that can be filed with the court as an enforceable contract. Once made, a Separation Agreement solidifies the rights and obligations of you and your spouse in the divorce. If you think your spouse is not upholding their end of the bargain, you can bring it to the attention of the court through a Complaint for Contempt.
However, one of the great benefits of divorce mediation is that resulting agreement tend to be violated less frequently than agreements that are the product of litigation. This tends to be true because both spouses have more control over the completed agreement through the mediation process than spouses who reach agreement through the coercive pressure of litigation. Mediated agreements tend to fall more precisely in line with the future needs and interests of spouses, avoid many of the resentments and frustrations with the litigation process that can motivate violations. Additionally, because both spouses contribute to a mediated agreement, former spouses often take a measure of pride in authorship, with results in better compliance with the agreement’s terms.
How is mediation different from arbitration?
Divorce mediation and divorce arbitration are different methods of dispute resolution or ways of resolving the issues that arise when you and your spouse decide to pursue a divorce.
In divorce arbitration, spouses essentially hire a private judge to resolve their divorce. (Indeed, a great many arbitrators are quite literally retired judges.) The main advantage of arbitration is control over the schedule and litigation process when spouses know they are destined for a contested trial. Within the court system, it is common for spouses to wait years for a trial to take place, and delays are common. With an arbitrator, spouses guarantee the availability of their “judge”, and in many instances, end up spending less money than they would in a trial in court, even after paying the arbitrator’s fee.
Of course, arbitrating one’s case is really the opposite of settling. The arbitrator’s hearing might be less formal than a real trial, but the reality is that an arbitration is essentially a trial, with lawyers, evidence in witnesses all behaving in similar ways as they would in a trial. Moreover, the increased flexibility comes with a price: an arbitration result, called the “award,” is nearly impossible to appeal.
In any event, what is most important to understand when comparing arbitration to mediation is this: arbitration amounts to a private trial, while mediation process is designed entirely to avoid the trial process. An arbitrator listens to evidence and arguments and decides issues for the divorcing spouses. For attorneys and clients, preparing for an arbitration hearing is nearly identical to preparing for a trial in court. In contrast, mediation generally avoids the direct involvement of lawyers, and focuses on direct negotiation between the spouses. Instead of deciding issues for the spouses, a mediator facilitates agreement between the spouses directly.
For spouses who are absolutely certain that they will never agree, an arbitrator is good option for breaking the logjam and making the tough decision. For spouses who want to avoid trial (or a close facsimile of trial), mediation generally represents the more cooperative, less expensive and less stressful option.
How is mediation different from litigation?
While divorce mediation and divorce litigation are both dispute resolution methods, they achieve their results through very different methods.
On the one hand, litigation focuses on providing justice to the right party. Because obtaining justice assumes that one spouse in the divorce is “right” and the other spouse is “wrong,” litigation relies on attorneys making arguments to a judge. Where an attorney’s sole loyalty flows to his or client, the result is an adversarial process which focuses on exposing the weaknesses of the other party.
Divorce mediation, on the other hand, is a flexible and voluntary process that focuses on finding common solutions by capitalizing on each spouse’s individual and collective strengths. Mediation looks past the idea that one spouse is “right” and the other is “wrong.” Instead, mediation focuses on common goals and interests that spouses continue to share, even after their marriage has eroded, with a focus on how both spouses can best move on after the separation becomes finalized. This gives mediation a forward-thinking, amicable, and cooperative attitude that can help you and your spouse find the resolution that helps everyone.
How can mediation produce a fair result?
By encourage each spouse to negotiate for their individual interests, while encouraging respect and dialogue when considering the other spouse’s needs and desires, divorce mediation is often the best way for separating spouses to reach a fair and mutually beneficial resolution in their divorce.
The mediation sessions that are the backbone of the mediation process let each spouse decide what is best for them and how they want to pursue it. At the same time, by placing the spouses in the position of direct negotiation, mediating spouses tend to have a better appreciation for the specific compromises and tradeoffs that were required to make a final agreement. This enables each spouse to prioritize the outcomes they seek from the divorce process that will let them move on and adapt to life after the divorce has become final.
Attorneys play a crucial role in the family law system. However, one byproduct of attorney involvement in an adversarial system is leverage. It is the attorney’s job to identify and exploit the weaknesses and fears of an opposing party. Thus, attorney-negotiated agreements often include elements of dominance and submission, in which one spouse has submitted to the will of the other spouse out of fear, rather than compromise. These power dynamics can lead to less outcomes than mediation, in which leverage takes a back seat to compromise.
A secondary feature of attorney involvement is that attorneys invariably have a very clear picture in their minds of what constitutes a “fair” outcome in a given divorce. Indeed, it is the attorney’s job to explain to a spouse what a fair outcome would be for the client, and most attorneys do this job well. However, what sometimes gets lost in the attorney analysis are the true feelings and desires of the client-spouse, which can be overshadowed by the strong, confident voice of an attorney who thinks he or she knows best. The attorney may dig in and fight on an issue the spouse does not truly consider important. Conversely, the attorney may dismiss issues the spouse feels are extremely important because the attorney’s perspective differs.
Without the presence of attorneys during mediation sessions, the voices of each spouse tends to rings true with respect to a spouse’s deeply-held interests, needs, and concerns for their future well-being, giving the spouses an unfiltered opportunity to articulate what matters most. Additionally, the presence of the mediator during these sessions reduces the power dynamics that can result in pressure and leverage while ensuring that there is no undue influence or imbalance in bargaining power that could result in an unconscionable result. Together, the unique opportunity that mediation provides for spouses to speak and be heard in a controlled environment increases the likelihood of a fair outcome for both spouses.
What are the issues that mediation can handle?
Because it is simply another way of resolving any disputes that you might have with your spouse as you pursue a divorce, divorce mediation is designed to handle any of the issues that might come up in your case. This includes problems that are often easy to settle as well as the ones that are typically far more difficult, including child custody and parenting time, how to divide marital assets, as well as child support and alimony. In addition, mediation is frequently used to resolve post-divorce issues that would otherwise result in the filing of a Complaint for Modification or Complaints for Contempt. Mediation is even a highly effective method for preparing prenuptial agreements. Indeed, family mediation is not limited to divorce at all. Unmarried parents who would otherwise litigate child custody and child support issues in Probate and Family Court often find the same success in mediation as divorcing spouses.
In fact, any domestic relations issue that can be handled in Probate and Family Court can also be resolved in mediation. This is because litigation and mediation are simply two different methods of resolving disputes. What the dispute is about does not matter – only the path to an answer changes.
Are there some cases that should not go through mediation?
The short answer is yes, there are some cases that are not well-suited for mediation. However, it is important not to jump to conclusions about where mediation is more flexible and adept that many people give it credit for.
There are three main classes of cases that are unsuitable for mediation: (1.) Extremely contentious cases in which a history of abuse or imbalanced power dynamics prevents one spouse from effectively advocating for him or herself, even with the aid of a mediator. (2.) Complex financial cases in which one spouse lacks the training, knowledge or acumen to evaluate the financial issues in the case, and (3.) cases in which one or both spouses fail to show a good-faith commitment to the mediation process by providing accurate information or records, or by failing to negotiate honestly.
If you are worried that your divorce will be too complex for mediation, bear in mind that outside experts like accountants, real estate appraisers, and even investigators can be brought into a divorce mediation to help, just as such outside experts can play a role in divorce litigation. These professionals can provide the special knowledge it takes to adequately resolve your divorce in mediation. Moreover, many spouses address complex financial issues in a mediation by hiring a mediation-friendly attorney as a Mediation Coach. Such attorneys are trained to analyze complex financial issues in a divorce and can provide invaluable aid to spouses who are trying to understand a family’s finances.
If you are worried that you and your spouse are too adversarial for mediation to work, you might have more cause for concern. Divorce mediation is based on mutual respect, trust, and communication. If you do not think that your spouse will play fair or if you do not trust your spouse, then mediation might not be your best option. The same goes for if your spouse has been abusive in the past and you are concerned for your safety. If you are worried that your spouse has special knowledge – for example, he or she is a divorce attorney – or too much of the bargaining power in your relationship for mediation to work, though, it is important to remember that some of these issues can be addressed through the use of a Mediation Coach, and that mediators are trained to see these problems and account for them in ways that does not let one spouse overpower the other.
Is divorce mediation appropriate for same-sex couples?
Yes. Same-sex marriage has been legal in Massachusetts for well over a decade. All of our mediators have handled same-sex divorces in the mediation or litigation context, and while some of the dynamics of same-sex divorces can differ from opposite-sex divorce, these differences are generally minor.
Where same-sex marriage was legalized in Massachusetts in 2004, our courts have had more exposure to same-sex divorce than most states. Special concerns can arise in same-sex divorces involving children, where many same-sex couples rely on adoption or in vitro fertilization to have children, resulting in legal issues that are not present in natural birth contexts. At the same time, many of the special issues arising out of differences in state and federal law have been resolved or mitigated since the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage across the United States. Although some unique challenges remain for divorcing same-sex couples, experienced mediators are well-equipped to address these issues as they arise.
What if we can’t agree on all the issues in divorce mediation?
Even if you and your spouse are unable to come to a satisfactory agreement on all of the issues during mediation, any progress made during mediation can help immensely if you choose to take your divorce to court. In short, mediation tends to be less expensive than litigation, so any issue that you are able to resolve through mediation is one less that will have to handle in court.
In fact, this is one of the greatest strengths of mediation: By working collaboratively with your spouse, you can narrow down the issues for litigation to solve, saving time, money, and lots of stress. It is important to note, however, that the burden lies with the spouses and attorneys to preserve the agreements reached during the mediation process. Under Massachusetts law, a mediator cannot be forced to testify in a litigated divorce, and all of the information and statements made during mediation are confidential and inadmissible in Court.
What happens if we cannot reach a divorce agreement during mediation?
While mediation is a good way to resolve a divorce, it is by no means a guaranteed success. Sometimes mediated divorces break down, leaving divorcing spouses without a completed divorce agreement to take to court to finalize their separation. When this happens, there are three paths that you can go down: Litigation, try another mediation, or independent negotiation. Alternately, sometimes spouses benefit by simply taking a break from mediation, then returning several months later after heads have cleared.
The most common path to take after an unsuccessful mediation process is litigation. Mediation typically helps resolve the relatively uncontested issues in your divorce at the outset. This leaves the more contentious divorce issues to be wrestled with, and this can feel so overwhelming that the mediation process might not seem up to the challenge. This is when many spouses opt-out of the mediation process for the more traditional divorce trial, where they believe a judge will break the logjam by deciding difficult issues on behalf of the spouses.
Some divorcing spouses leave one mediation process for another. This can happen when one spouse has become disillusioned with the mediator, often because they think the mediator is biased or is not listening, or is not moving quickly enough. Because mediation is totally voluntary, either spouse can end the process at any time.
Finally, some spouses elect to try resolving their issues on their own, independently of the courts or any mediators. This can happen when the mediation process goes so smoothly that the spouses become confident in their ability to resolve their own differences without a referee between them.
Regardless of what happens after a mediation process that did not produce a finalized divorce agreement, the mediation itself was not necessarily unsuccessful. Even incomplete mediations often narrow down the issues that still a resolution, moving you towards the divorce agreement that you and your spouse are looking for.
Are mediated divorces better for children than litigated divorces?
While every situation is different, mediated divorces are generally better for the children involved than if the divorce goes through litigation.
Mediated divorces provide an opportunity for the parents of a child to come up with parenting plans that are uniquely suited for the child’s well-being and for the ability and resources of each parent. These are often far better suited for the child’s needs than those that are determined by a divorce court judge, who only sees the dynamics of your family from an outsider’s perspective, and only for a short period of time.
Perhaps more importantly, though, mediated divorces avoid much of the adversarial nature that is the hallmark of a litigated divorce. The kind of conflict that often comes during litigation frequently leads to stress and tension in the personal lives of the spouses who are separating, and this has a negative impact on the children in the family. Even worse, many litigated divorces involve children being called on to provide testimony through court-appointed investigators such as Guardian ad Litems. Even if it does not occur in open court, a child’s testimony can have a great deal of influence on issues surrounding child custody and child support, and children, even young ones, apprehend the seriousness of the situation, which can be incredibly stressful for them.
How can we mediate if we have a contentious relationship or if my spouse intimidates me?
Divorce mediation can still work, even when parties have a contentious relationship.
Mediating a contentious divorce is certainly more difficult compared to a relationship that is amicable. However, that does not mean that mediation is impossible, or even that mediation is not still the best option. When parties get along and agree on most subjects, divorce is easy. A divorce with challenging issues – including the relationship between the spouses – still needs to be completed, and mediation can still work, despite a difficult relationship.
Many divorces happen precisely because the relationship between spouses has become too contentious to continue. Mediation can still be an excellent way to resolve the disputes because it provides both spouses an opportunity to discuss their respective futures in a setting that will deescalate the tension. The mediators at South Shore Divorce Mediation are generally quite skilled at keeping sessions calm and productive, and minimizing whatever tension there might be between spouses. Of course, none of this is fool-proof. If spouses cannot tolerate being in each other’s presence, or if one spouse is so scared or intimidated by the other spouse that he or she is unable to meaningfully participate in mediation, then the process breaks down.
Mediators often encounter imposing or domineering spouses who try to pressure the opposing spouses in a variety of ways. While there are situations where this becomes too overbearing for the mediation process to be productive, mediators have a variety of tools for circumventing the cycle of conflict and bringing both parties to the table to discuss their future in a fruitful, thoughtful, and civil manner that is beneficial to both sides.
Can our mediator represent either of us an attorney in a divorce proceeding or give us legal advice after the mediation is over?
No. The mediator’s role in a divorce mediation is as a neutral third party who urges spouses to listen to each other’s needs, creatively craft solutions that are mutually beneficial, and compromise in ways that ensure everyone’s future success and well-being. Directly representing either you or your spouse during the mediation would destroy this neutrality. (It might also violate the Massachusetts Rules of Professional Conduct, which impose a duty of loyalty and a duty to avoid conflicts of interest on attorneys.)
The mediator’s inability to legally represent either party extends past the ending of the mediation sessions. Because these sessions are kept confidential in order to facilitate the negotiation process, it would be improper for the mediator – who has inside knowledge of those discussions – to then give you legal advice after the mediation has wrapped up.
In contrast, a mediation coach is an attorney who can assist you during the mediation process by offering coaching as you work with the mediator. Your mediation coach can represent you in divorce litigation if the mediation process breaks down.
Should I see my own lawyer during the mediation process?
Having an attorney as a mediation coach is often helpful during mediation. Our mediators encourage spouses to work with mediation-friendly attorneys while a mediation is ongoing. We also offering mediation coaching services to clients who are engaged in mediation with another mediator. Mediation-friendly attorneys who act as mediation coaches can often play a positive role in mediation by offering their client the type of direct and candid legal advice that a mediator – who is acting as an impartial third party – cannot offer to either spouse. Moreover, if a complaint for divorce has already been filed, spouses can take a break from litigation to try mediation – and continue to take advice from their attorneys during the process.
Whether you should use a mediation coach depends on the specific circumstances of your case.
One of the strengths of the divorce mediation process is that there are no attorneys at the mediation sessions to push you or your spouse to try to get more out of the divorce. Without lawyers advocating on your behalf inside the room, you and your spouse are in a far better position to come to a mutually beneficial resolution that you can both live with over the long term, rather than one that strongly favors one spouse or the other.
However, it can often help to use an attorney as a mediation coach who coaches you on negotiating strategy and tactics, advised you about the law, and helps you prepare and review financial documents and proposed agreements.
Sometimes one spouse has an upper hand in the bargaining process. This might result from the spouse’s intimate knowledge of the law, a better understanding of finances, or simply a strong (or overbearing) personality. Having a mediation coach to guide you through the mediation process can be very helpful. Indeed, many spouses who go through the divorce mediation process find that having a mediation coach is a great way to hone their negotiation abilities, set goals and develop discussion plans, and build confidence that can make a big difference during the mediation sessions.
How can I find a good mediator?
Check out Nicole’s blog, “Tips for Finding the Right Divorce Mediator for Your Family”, for a nice overview of this subject.
Finding a divorce mediator that works for both you and your spouse by encouraging fruitful discussion and advancing agreement is a big factor in the outcome of a mediated divorce. Unfortunately, mediators cannot simply be ranked by effectiveness: A divorce mediator who works perfectly for one couple might be inadequate for another. This makes finding a “good” divorce mediator difficult.
We are always happy to answer questions from potential mediation clients who are trying to determine which mediator will be the best fit for their divorce. Contact us and we will do our best to help!
When should I start the mediation process?
Mediation is far more flexible than litigation, which requires at least one party to file a Complaint for Divorce (or modification or contempt, etc.) in order to commence the process. It often works best to initiate mediation before either party starts litigation, but parties routinely enter mediation midway through litigation with great success. For more coverage surrounding mediation timing, check out Carmela Miraglia’s blog, When Should You Start the Divorce Mediation Process?
How long does it take to mediate a divorce?
The duration of the mediation process varies based on factors including the substantive issues that participants agree or disagree on, the relationship dynamics between participants, each spouse’s motivation and engagement level, and the complexity surrounding family income and assets. For a complete rundown on the factors effecting the length of divorce mediation, check out Nicole Levy’s blog, How Long Will My Divorce Mediation Take to Complete?
How can my spouse and/or I overcome negative emotions in our mediation?
In many divorce mediations, one or both participants’ inability to move past their negative emotions is a primary impediment to reaching resolution. A spouse’s anger can undermine the negotiation process, and participants are often required to process negative emotions during the process in order to succeed. Luckily, divorce mediators use a variety of techniques to translate negative emotions into more productive, settlement-positive motivations during the mediation process. For details, check out Nicole Levy’s blog, Overcoming Negative Emotions in the Mediation Process.
What is the Co-Worker Rule and how does it work in divorce mediation?
The Co-Worker Rule is a simple rule of thumb for mediation participants who are struggling to set aside their anger or difficult history with their spouse. The rule states that spouses should seek to interact and communicate like co-workers in a professional environment instead of like former spouses. Although it sounds simple, divorcing spouses often find it difficult to create appropriate boundaries after so many years of sharing their unfiltered thoughts with one another. The Co-Worker Rule provides a simple standard of conduct that most individuals can understand and attempt to observe. For more information, check out Kim Keyes’ blog, Setting Boundaries During Divorce: The Co-Worker Rule.
How can I understand legal issues in my divorce mediation?
One of the primary challenges for participants who enter mediation without an attorney is recognizing, articulating and negotiating legal issues. Mediation participants regularly seek out experienced divorce attorneys to mediate their divorce. Using an experienced attorney as a mediator is especially helpful when it comes to drafting a reliable Separation Agreement that reflects the intent of the participants in appropriate and enforceable terms. However, the mediator is not acting as an attorney for either participant and cannot provide legal advice during mediation sessions. Mediation coaches often fill in the gap on legal arguments by assisting clients in identifying and advocating their positions in the face of legal issues. For a rundown on how mediation coaches help with legal issues, check out Kim Keyes’ blog, How Basic Legal Arguments Can Help Non-Lawyers in Divorce Mediation.
How do I negotiate my divorce through mediation?
South Shore Divorce Mediation offers mediation coaching for individuals engaged in mediation who seek guidance during the negotiation process. For individuals proceeding without a coach, preparing to negotiate involves identifying clear goals for mediation, conducting research and gathering knowledge on legal and financial issues, approaching the negotiation patiently, and continually revising and re-focusing on your goals to ensure you obtain an optimal outcome. For a more comprehensive rundown on preparing for mediation, check out Carmela Miraglia’s blog, Four Negotiating Tips for Divorce Mediation.
What goals should I set before my divorce mediation?
In the context of divorce mediation, it’s important to recognize the four core divorce issues that may be present in your mediation: (1.) child custody and parenting time, (2.) child support, (3.) alimony and (4.) the division of assets. Some divorces feature a few additional issues, while many divorces include only one or two of the listed issues. Prior to entering mediation, participants should spend some time researching outcomes for divorce cases. For example, participants should make an effort to understand how child support and alimony are calculated in Massachusetts, and when courts order shared physical custody. With respect to assets, consider the length of the marriage and nature of the assets in question, such as the marital home. The best mediation negotiators enter the process with a set of clear goals, while remaining open to identifying the areas in which they are willing to make sacrifices, while updating and prioritizing their goals as the mediation process unfolds. For a detailed review of setting goals in divorce mediation, check out Nicole Levy’s blog, The Importance of Defining Your Goals Before Divorce Mediation.
How do divorce mediators handle alimony cases?
Alimony often presents challenges for divorcing couples, particularly after a long-term marriage. Like any other divorce issue, however, alimony is well suited to resolution through mediation. Before entering mediation, participants are encouraged to perform some basic research on how the amount and duration alimony are calculated in Massachusetts, or whichever state the divorce will take place in. Mediation often provides favorable pathways for alimony disputes by encouraging creative alimony solutions, such as full and partial alimony buyouts. For a more complete review of how alimony fits into divorce mediation, check out Kim Keyes’ blog, Divorce Mediation Keeps Alimony Focus on the Future.
Does my divorce mediator need to understand tax law?
Not every divorce involves significant tax issues. Moreover, many mediation participants are capable of understanding basic tax issues, such as child tax credits, that can arise in a divorce. More challenging tax issues include the tax deductibility of alimony, transfers from retirement accounts using Qualified Domestic Relations Orders (QDROs), couples owing back taxes, 529 college savings accounts, how long divorcing spouses in Massachusetts can file “joint” tax returns, and tax issues concerning the marital home. It’s important to recognize that even the most tax-aware divorce mediator generally cannot provide specific tax advice to divorce participants. For this reason, it often makes sense for mediation participants to consult with an outside tax expert, either individually or together, before finalizing their divorce agreement. (Similarly, a tax-aware mediation coach can often assist a participant with specific tax issues.)
However, a tax-aware mediator can play and important role in spotting and avoiding tax issues that can arise in the divorce context, as well as drafting divorce agreement provisions that effectuate the tax goals articulated by the participants. For a more complete rundown on tax-aware mediation, check out Kim Keyes’ blog, Tax Reform and Divorce: Is Your Divorce Mediator Tax-Aware?
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