Marriage Counseling and Divorce Mediation

Over the past few months, we have been following the stories of three couples considering divorce mediation. Two of them, Gerry and Beth and Katherine and Julian, decided that they wanted to pursue marriage counseling first. Today we are taking a closer look at marriage counseling. When is it appropriate? How is it different from mediation? Is there such a thing as “divorce counseling?” Many people find themselves confused by a variety of options that all sound somewhat similar. Continue reading

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Tailoring Mediation: Gerry and Beth Examine Their Finances

When we last saw Gerry and Beth, they had decided to try marriage counseling. In the meantime, however, Beth is also meeting with an attorney to help her understand what they would need to address in a divorce. Gerry is holding off on talking to an attorney, but he has done a little research on his own. He too is concerned about how they would resolve their financial issues. Today we will consider how divorce mediation might help this couple.

Financial Backdrop

As we learned in our introductory post, Gerry currently earns approximately $150,000 per year as the CEO of a small company. Beth, who spent 10 years as a stay-at-home mom, now earns $60,000 per year as a teacher. She would like to retire next year, when she will be eligible for an annual pension of about $22,000. The couple’s home, which they purchased during the marriage, is fully paid for and has a current value of about $450,000. They have joint savings and investments of $50,000, and Gerry’s 401k has a balance of approximately $800,000.

On the recommendation of her attorney, Ms. White, Beth is preparing a detailed budget and completing a  New Jersey Family Part Case Information Statement. She is finding this somewhat daunting with so many decisions still up in the air. Ms. White points out that some of those decisions might be easier with expert assistance. They could start by hiring a joint Certified Divorce Financial Analyst (CDFA). A CDFA can help mediation participants project future scenarios and identify potential ways to optimize each party’s post-divorce financial situation. Hiring a joint CDFA can result in substantial savings compared with hiring separate financial experts for litigation.

Let’s look one at a time at the issues facing Beth and Gerry:

Alimony

Because the New Jersey alimony statute (NJSA 2A:34-23) does not provide formulas, but instead simply contains lists of factors, mediation is a good forum for presenting alimony arguments. Spouses who work out their own solutions can save a great deal of time and money that they would otherwise spend arguing in court. For example, Gerry and Beth might be able to agree on a graduated payment schedule based on anticipated changes in their future incomes. Their alimony discussion could also intersect with their discussions about property distribution.

Amount of Alimony

Like the first two couples in this series, Gerry and Beth have a significant discrepancy in income. This means that Gerry is likely to end up paying Beth some amount of alimony. Beth assumes that she will receive enough to maintain the marital standard of living. Ms. White cautions her that this would be true only if Gerry could afford to pay this much without lowering his own standard of living. There is also the additional complicating factor of Beth’s decision to retire next year, at 62. This would be entirely voluntary, rather than prompted by a lack of ongoing employment opportunities, ill health, or some other factor beyond Beth’s control. Even if Beth stops working, Gerry can therefore argue that alimony should be based on her $60,000 salary, rather than on the $22,000 pension. This could reduce payments by several thousand dollars per year, significantly impacting Beth’s post-divorce lifestyle.

Duration of Alimony

Unlike either of our first two couples, Gerry and Beth have been married for more than twenty years, allowing a New Jersey court to order “open durational” alimony, meaning an award without a set ending date. There would be a rebuttable presumption, however, that alimony would end when Gerry reaches full retirement age, in only three years. Beth could challenge this based on the factors listed in the statute. These include the parties’ ages, health, and other available assets and income; the degree to which an alimony recipient has depended economically on the other spouse; whether the recipient has reached retirement age and has had an opportunity to save adequately for retirement; whether the recipient has exchanged other claims, such as property rights, for more alimony; and any other factors that a court may deem relevant (NJSA 2A:34-23j (1)).

Distribution of Marital Property

Neither Beth nor Gerry appears to have any separate property of significant value. Their home, joint saving and investments, and retirement accounts or pensions are all marital property, as they were all purchased or funded entirely during the marriage. They would, however, have some decisions to make regarding the equitable distribution of their marital property.

The Family Home

Beth has already indicated that she would like to move to New Hampshire, so it could be up to Gerry to decide whether or not they will sell the family home. Since they bought it during their marriage, they could each begin by claiming half the value. There is nothing to prevent either of them, however, from arguing for a different division. New Jersey statutes include a factor list for this as well (NJSA 2A:34-23.1). If they sell the house, they can simply divide the proceeds. If Gerry wants to keep it, however, they will need to agree on an exact market value, so that Beth can get a credit for her share. They could hire a licensed real estate appraiser for this, or they could simply collect some comps on their own. Gerry might then consider taking out a new mortgage to buy out Beth.

Retirement Accounts

Beth asks Ms. White why Gerry couldn’t just give her a portion of his 401k in exchange for her share of the house. “He probably owes me part of the account anyway,” she surmised, “since he has $800,000 saved already.”

Ms. White’s response is that retirement assets need to be valued differently than other assets. There are also open questions, she points out, about the appropriate ages of retirement for each of them, as well as about the potential impact of social security payments. Beth’s own pension would be higher if she waits until 65 to retire, and it isn’t realistic to expect Gerry to pay for her decision not to wait. “$800,000 might sound like a lot,” she notes, “but it wouldn’t maintain even one person at your current lifestyle.”

“We should just sell the house then,” Beth proposes. “We’ll each have plenty of money after that, because we’ll each only have half the expenses we had before.”

“That’s a common misconception,” Ms. White comments. “One person could need 80% or more of the amount that two people need. You lose the benefit of many shared expenses.”

Beth leaves Ms. White’s office in deep thought. She is beginning to question whether or not retiring next year is really such a good idea. After all, she still enjoys her job. Maybe, she thinks, she should just spend a few weeks in New Hampshire this summer and reconsider everything.

Conclusion

Beth and Gerry still have many things to work out. Our series, however, ends here. As we moved through these stories, we saw two out of three couples decide that they wanted to pursue marriage counseling before deciding whether or not to proceed with divorce mediation. In our next post, we will take a closer look at marriage counseling. When is it appropriate? How is counseling different from mediation? Is there such a thing as “divorce counseling?” Stay tuned as we address each of these questions.

Are you interested in talking to one of our experienced mediators about how to structure your own divorce mediation? Contact us today for a free consultation.

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Tailoring Mediation: Gerry and Beth

Today we will follow one more couple as they consider using the divorce mediation process. As we learned in our introductory post to this series, Gerry and Beth have been married for 35 years and have three grown children. Continue reading

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Tailoring Mediation: Eric and Eva Address Financial Issues

divorce assetsIn our last post, we saw Eric and Eva address their child custody issues in mediation, with surprisingly positive results. Today we will look at some of the financial issues they will need to resolve before finalizing their divorce. These include alimony and child support payments, identification and distribution of marital property, and division of retirement assets. Continue reading

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Tailoring Mediation: Eva and Eric Address Parenting Issues

Today we are continuing to follow Eric and Eva as they focus on using divorce mediation to address parenting issues. As we learned in our introductory post, 40-year-old Eric and 43-year-old Eva have been married for 15 years. They have two children, Chris, who is 10, and Laura, who is 12. For the time being, Eva is remaining in the family home, while Eric is moving into a nearby rented townhouse. Continue reading

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Tailoring Mediation: Eva and Eric

In our last few posts we have been following three couples attempting to tailor divorce mediation to their own specific needs. Today we are looking at Eric and Eva, a couple in their early forties who have been married for 15 years and have two young children, ages 10 and 12.

In our introductory post, we learned that Eva blames Eric for the breakdown of the marriage. She describes him as a “workaholic” who has long been disconnected from the family. Eric does not contradict this, but says he now wants things to change. He is seeking not just joint legal custody of the children, but also 50/50 shared physical custody. This makes little sense to Eva, who observes that by his own admission, he has never spent much time with the children. She thinks joint legal custody is fair, but does not see shared physical custody as a realistic option. Eric, however, is adamant about this. Continue reading

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Tailoring Mediation: Katherine and Julian Address Their Finances

Today we are going to look at some ways to resolve financial issues in divorce mediation. We met Katherine and Julian in our two previous posts. They are both 33, have no children, and have been married for six years. As we learned last month, they decided to go through marriage counseling to address emotional problems before making a final decision to divorce. If they do divorce, the next question will be whether or not they can use mediation effectively. Continue reading

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Tailoring Mediation: Katherine and Julian

divorce mediation tipsOver the next few months, we will follow three couples attempting to mold divorce mediation to their own specific needs. First, we’ll look at Katherine and Julian, both 33 years old, and married for 6 years with no children. When we met this couple in our last post, their marriage had broken down, at least in part due to an affair Katherine had recently revealed to Julian. She insisted that the affair was over and that she wanted to try to save their marriage. Julian, however, was not receptive. He felt hurt, and angry, and wanted only to move on to divorce.

As we saw in our initial post, if this couple proceeds to divorce, they will have significant economic issues to resolve. In our next post, we’ll examine these issues and discuss ways they might be resolved through mediation. Today, however, we are going to consider a more threshold question: Are Julian and Katherine good candidates for mediation? Continue reading

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Tailoring Mediation to Your Needs: Three Stories

divorce mediationIn previous posts, we’ve talked about different ways to structure divorce mediation based on various factors. Some of these factors include complicated financial scenarios,  family home issues, and child custody disputes. Potential power imbalances or high degrees of conflict between divorcing spouses are also important concerns. Over the next few months, we will introduce three couples, each of whom is dealing with one or more of these issues. Their stories are fictional, but the couples possess multiple characteristics of actual clients. If you have some things in common with any of these couples, you may be able to use their experiences as a blueprint for how to move forward with mediation in your own divorce. Continue reading

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Mediation for Post-Divorce Issues

Couple Meeting with ConsultantMediation can be highly effective for resolving issues in divorce, and it’s also a great option for addressing post-divorce issues. Fortunately, couples who use mediation to negotiate Marital Settlement Agreements (MSA’s) tend to have few post-divorce disagreements. Those who receive orders after contentious court procedures may be more likely to continue to fight over those orders. Whether you originally participated in divorce mediation or not, however, you are free to go to a mediator to resolve any post-divorce disagreements. Such disagreements tend to concern isolated matters which can be resolved in one or two mediation sessions, presenting a much cheaper and less stressful alternative to court. Continue reading

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