Parents and Intimate Partner Violence: Benefits of Mediation with Safety Protocols

A recent study of family law cases involving high levels of intimate partner violence (IPV) between parents found that shuttle mediation and videoconference mediation, when carried out by well-trained staff in a protected environment and designed with strong safety protocols, showed several advantages over litigation. The term “intimate partner violence” refers to violence between romantic partners, who may or may not be living together. It is similar to “domestic violence,” but there is a distinction between the terms, as the latter refers to violence between household members. Household members could be spouses or romantic partners, but they could also be children, siblings, or even roommates. Read more

Educational Planning in Mediation

In our last post, we discussed a few aspects of estate planning that a couple with minor children and a relatively simple estate might want to address during divorce mediation. Today, we will continue looking at our example couple, Deena and Greg, as they consider educational planning for their two younger children, 14-year-old Brian and 12-year-old Lindsey.

As we previously discussed in College Planning and Mediation: Part I, there are circumstances under which divorced parents In New Jersey can be held responsible for funding post high school education for children. Educational expenses typically include tuition and fees, room and board, and books and supplies. Other associated costs include things like college prep exam fees and review courses, application fees, travel expenses for college visits and necessary and discretionary expenses during college (clothing, travel, entertainment, etc.). Absent an agreement between parents about how to cover costs, a court would apply the criteria set out in the 1982 case of Newburgh v. Arrigo.

If your children are young, it might seem like a better idea to wait and address this issue later. After all, many things can change over the years, and you already have plenty to worry about. Mediation, however, is an ideal forum for addressing parental contributions to children’s higher education expenses. Courts tend to uphold agreements between parents about contributions, as long as they are specific and clear. If college is still a few years away, you can write up an agreement that provides for an income-based cost sharing plan while leaving out specific dollar amounts. Putting your plan into your Marital Settlement Agreement (MSA) allows your attorneys to review it along with your other terms. You can also include a clause agreeing to return to mediation to refine the agreement later.

Educational Contributions and Parental Income

Deena and Greg currently have very similar incomes and plan to share parenting equally. They were happy therefore, to take child support off of their current list of concerns. Nevertheless, they should be prepared for the possibility that this might change. What if one of them gets a new job or starts a lucrative business during the next few years? At that point, the less financially well-off spouse might wish they had thought about college funding sooner. They might even want to change their mind about getting a child support agreement.

To get an idea of how New Jersey courts calculate child support for parents who share custody, Deena and Greg can look at the New Jersey Shared Parenting Worksheet. The first figure in the support calculation is “gross income.” This includes both earned and unearned income. Part C of the Family Case Information Statement (CIS) includes a more detailed breakdown of what income includes. As we have previously discussed, it is usually a good idea for couples in mediation to complete and exchange at least a rough draft of the CIS, even if, as in Greg and Deena’s case, their financial situation is pretty simple. Sometimes completing the CIS reveals things that no one previously considered. Other times it simply ensures that all income and assets are taken into account.

Although the New Jersey child support guidelines do not apply to children who are in college and not living at home, they can provide insight into how parents might set up an agreement for income-based college contributions. The next step will be to decide how to budget for the planned contributions. The parents can then incorporate the contribution agreement into their MSA.

Funding Higher Education for Children

Deena and Greg do not currently have any savings designated for their children’s education. They do, however, have good salaries and well-funded retirement accounts. Greg has a traditional IRA and Deena has a 401k.  In some cases, it is possible to use retirement accounts for educational expenses. Withdrawals from both traditional and Roth IRAs before age 59 ½ that are used for qualified higher education expenses are not subject to the usual 10% early withdrawal penalties. They are, however, still subject to income taxes. Qualified expenses generally include tuition, fees, books, necessary supplies and equipment, and room and board for students enrolled at least half time in a degree program.

There are, of course, downsides to using retirement funds for education, the most obvious of which is that the funds would no longer be available for retirement. It is also only IRAs that can be used in this way. Deena’s 401k would not qualify. It might be possible for her to borrow from her vested balance in the 401k to pay for college expenses. Before considering this option though, she should discuss the financial impacts with a financial advisor. Pursuing other student loan options will usually be a better choice.

Another option that is usually better than dipping into retirement savings is opening 529 plans.  Although it would have been ideal for them to begin earlier, Greg and Deena still have time to do this. Each parent could open an account for each child and fund the accounts on a regular basis going forward. Any loans or retirement withdrawals would then be only back-up options. If the parents can agree on how much each of them will contribute, they can coordinate setting up the plans with the rest of their asset distribution in divorce.

Including Children in College Planning Discussions

Deena and Greg should also decide how and when to include their children in college planning discussions. Brian will be old enough for that within a couple of years. Lindsey is still young, but because of her disability, her future education may require earlier and more extensive planning. Parents often want children to understand that there is a “cap” on how much they will be able to contribute. The earlier they make this clear, the less likely a child is to become excited about possibilities that do not make sense financially. If children may need to work part time or take out loans themselves, that is another important topic of discussion.

Deena and Greg decide to build future college planning meetings into their MSA. They set three dates, the first for a meeting between the two of them, and the second and third for meetings between both parents and each child. They also agree to add additional meetings with a mediator if necessary to resolve any disagreements. A tentative checklist of topics for the meetings includes the following:

  • The Child’s Educational Goals
  • All Estimated Costs of the Education
  • Current Savings and Future Savings Plans
  • The Child’s Expected Contribution.
  • Each Parent’s Expected Contribution
  • Mechanics of Payment

For more detailed information on college planning and mediation, including more on the list of topics to address, see: College Planning and Mediation: Part II.

If you and your spouse or former spouse would like to discuss educational planning for children and mediation with one of our experienced family mediators, take advantage of our free consultation and contact us today.


Choosing Peace for the Holiday Season

The Best Holiday Gift is Peace

The year is winding down, and we are already in the thick of the holidays. If you have been struggling with your marriage, you might be thinking that the best gift you could give yourself would be a meeting with a divorce attorney or a divorce mediator. You might also think it makes more sense to ride out the rest of the year without upsetting family traditions. After all, isn’t choosing peace in the spirit of the season? Read more

Mediation and the holidays

Mediation and the Holidays: When Religious Traditions Clash

Mediation and the holidays

The end of another year is closing in; the days are growing shorter and the weather colder. This means, of course, that it’s time once again to celebrate the winter holidays.  While not everyone practices religious holiday traditions, many people do. In fact, some couples practice the traditions of more than one faith. Read more

College Planning and Mediation: Part II

In our last post, we talked about mediation and planning for college expenses. Today we will look in more detail at the categories that you and your child’s other parent should address in any financial planning meetings about college contributions. These include: Read more

College Planning and Mediation: Part I

As parents of high school seniors already know, January and February are the deadline months for many college applications. This can be a financially stressful time for any family. For families going through divorce, the stakes can be even higher.

Parenting Agreements and Holiday Pressure: Mediation Can Help

holiday parenting plansAs the end of the year ushers in another holiday season, many divorcing parents find themselves at odds. Finalizing parenting agreements can be challenging when it includes dividing holiday time. To make matters worse, the 2018 holiday season brings extra pressure for many divorcing couples. Those with alimony provisions need to finalize their divorce agreements by the end of the year to avoid big tax changes.

None of this is easy, but you can at least feel confident that if you and your spouse are negotiating a settlement in mediation, you have a good chance of staying on schedule. Read more

Parenting Time:  Which Dispute Resolution Process Fits Your Family?

Couple meeting with divorce mediatorRecently we have been discussing different procedural options for resolving child custody disputes in New Jersey. We followed one family through litigation and another through mediation with a child-focused approach. Today we will look at a third option, child-inclusive mediation. Read more

Parenting Time: Derek and Megan Pursue Child Focused Mediation

Last month we discussed the predicament of Alan and Cherie, a couple who took their parenting dispute to court. Each of them hired a separate child custody evaluator, and while neither parent was dissatisfied with the ultimate result, both were highly dissatisfied with the level of conflict involved and with both the complexity and the high cost of the procedures. Today, we will look at another couple with a parenting dispute who have decided to take a different approach. Read more

Resolving Parenting Disputes in Mediation: Three Families Consider the Options

In our last post, we discussed the documented benefits of child-focused mediation and child-inclusive mediation in divorce. In our next few posts, we will present the stories of three divorcing couples, each of whom decides to approach their parenting disputes in different ways. These families are fictional, but their stories are derived from various real life scenarios. One family will go through a court process, one will go through mediation with a child-focused approach, and the third will go through child-inclusive mediation. Read more