Divorce Mediation
- by Eric C. Nelson, Attorney

People starting a divorce process sometimes call me asking whether they should mediate their divorce, or litigate, as if this were an either-or proposition with irrevocable consequences.

In reality,
every divorce requires both formal legal procedures as well as some kind of settlement negotiations. In Minnesota, even if you prefer to litigate and leave every decision up to the judge, the rules require that before the Court will decide your case, parties must attempt resolution through some form of Alternative Dispute Resolution, of which mediation is still the most common. [1]

Conversely, there is no way to finalize your divorce through mediation alone. Even if you reach a tentative agreement in mediation, this agreement must be formalized in a written stipulation, signed by both parties and their attorneys, and ultimately approved by the Court. [2] This signed stipulation — not your verbal agreements from mediation sessions — is what becomes the enforceable terms of your divorce, and should be prepared or at least reviewed and revised by your lawyer before you sign.

I generally do not recommend that people
start out the divorce process in mediation, for a couple of reasons:
  1. A mediator’s job is to get you to reach an agreement. Their sense of professional fulfillment is satisfied when an agreement is reached. Unfortunately, all too often, this can result in a person agreeing to things that are contrary to his or her interests, contrary to what the Court would order, and — in the worst case — contrary to the best interests of the children. Therefore, it is critically important to either have an attorney with you at the mediation session, or at least have one on retainer at the time, to consult before you agree to anything.
  2. Often times mediation is an unnecessary expense. If each party has a good family law lawyer, issues can often be settled with no mediation at all, or with a simple four-way settlement conference between the lawyers and the parties.
A couple of other things to always be aware of with mediation:
  1. Mediation is non-binding. This means that the mediator has no authority to force either party to agree to anything at all. Too often people come to me after the fact, complaining that the mediator forced them to agree to something. Just remember that no matter how much they may try to tell you that your position is unreasonable, or that the Court would never side with you, you do NOT need to agree to whatever it is they are pushing for.
  2. Mediation is also confidential. Nothing said in mediation may be used against a person. Many times people tell me they agreed to something in mediation because they were afraid they might be seen as unreasonable. This should not be a concern in mediation, because of the confidentiality rule. (Outside of mediation, your lawyer can advise you as to what positions are reasonable or unreasonable).
Notwithstanding all of the above, mediation can often be the process that helps break an impasse and result in a reasonable settlement of one’s case. But for mediation to work, both parties must be prepared to compromise. If you approach mediation with the attitude that it will be an opportunity to convince the other party to do things your way, mediation will likely fail. That said, be careful not to concede too much. A lawyer can give you appreciate where the line is between generous cooperation and foolish capitulation.

Footnotes:
  1. Rule 114, Minnesota General Rules of Practice for the District Courts.
  2. Minnesota Statute section 572.35 provides:
“EFFECT OF MEDIATED SETTLEMENT AGREEMENT.
Subdivision 1. General. The effect of a mediated settlement agreement shall be determined
under principles of law applicable to contract. A mediated settlement agreement is not binding
unless:
(1) it contains a provision stating that it is binding and a provision stating substantially that the parties were advised in writing that (a) the mediator has no duty to protect their interests or provide them with information about their legal rights; (b) signing a mediated settlement agreement may adversely affect their legal rights; and (c) they should consult an attorney before signing a mediated settlement agreement if they are uncertain of their rights; or
(2) the parties were otherwise advised of the conditions in clause (1).”