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Divorce does not have to be a dirty word

January 16, 2011
8/16/10
 

Mediators help couples resolve differences

By Rachel M. Anderson

When they were first married 21 years ago, life was good for Becky M. and Kurt K, who live in the Twin Cities. But 16
years and two kids later, they started drifting apart.

“After my ex went into self employment, he became very much absorbed in his business and that took time away from

family and myself,” says Becky. “There was a lot of frustration. We had a communication breakdown.”

They went to marriage counseling and tried some self help programs because they really wanted things to work, but

none of it helped. They continued to drift apart.

After five years of unhappiness in their marriage Becky and Kurt made the decision to split up, but when they started

looking into the steps required to get it one, the costs involved scared them. According to a recent article in Forbes

Magazine, between the filing fees, court fees and paying the attorneys, the average divorce costs a couple between

$15,000 – $30,000. But cost wasn’t the only thing that scared Kurt and Becky.

They also had a lot of uncertainty about the road head.

“When it came time to make decisions there was no way either one of us was going to agree on things,” she says.

Their therapist recommended they give mediation, a practice where they could communicate through a third party, a try.

Having watched her two sisters go through bitterly contested divorces, Becky decided that was the way to go.

“I wanted to minimize the stress as much as possible,” she says.

According to the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale developed by psychiatrists Thomas Holmes and Richard Rahe in 1967,

divorce is the second most painful event a person can go through.

“I would argue it’s number one,” says Jeff Johnson of Your Divorce Professionals, the mediator Becky and Kurt turned to

for help.

Johnson and his partners, Amber Serwat and Jill Goldstein, are divorcees themselves and got into the divorce mediation

business several years ago to help others. “We understand wholeheartedly what our clients are going through because

we’ve walked in their shoes,” says Serwat, who had been married for 10 years when what she calls “the crisis” hit.

Serwat and her ex-husband agreed to divorce, but couldn’t agree on a settlement. They fought for two-and-a-half years

over business ownership, significant marital and non-marital property, spousal support and parenting.

Johnson had been married for 24 years when he says one day his now ex-wife had divorce papers delivered to him at

work.

“That hit me like a brick. I didn’t know she was working with an attorney and I reacted by getting an attorney of my own.

We worked against each other instead of with each other and our relationship got worse,” he says.

Goldstein’s divorce process lasted 16 months. “Our argument was over some premarital funds that I had put my exhusband’s

name on,” she says.

Goldstein and her ex-husband did not have children. Kurt and Becky did, but had agreed on joint custody for their now

16-year-old daughter and 19-year-old son early on. What they couldn’t agree on was the division of marital assets.

Kurt and Becky’s divorce proceeding began with an initial mediation consultation – a free one hour session in which they

learned what was involved in the process and how to prepare. They quickly discovered why mediation is so much less

expensive than using attorneys, costing an average of $3,000 – $4,000 for cases needing three to five mediation sessions

according to FindLaw.com.

“We had to do a lot of the work ourselves,” says Becky.

They left the consultation with a questionnaire that required them to list their personal information, assets, liabilities,

income and monthly expenses. When they returned for their first session, they documented and valued all of their assets

and liabilities and came to an agreement on how their marital property would be divided. In the second session they

determined how they would handle spousal support, child support and agreed on a parenting plan which provided the

framework for co-parenting their children going forward.

When they returned for their final session, they received a Memorandum of Agreement, a detailed document that outlined

their complete divorce settlement and served as the basis for the required legal documents. The next step was to hire a

scrivener (or drafting attorney) to complete the necessary legal documents.

Once their documents were complete, Becky and Kurt formally filed for divorce with the county. After a routine default

hearing (required for pro se divorces with minor children) their divorce decree was signed by the judge and their divorce

was complete. From the time they began mediating until the date their divorce was official, just two months had passed.

Johnson, Stewart and Goldstein report that more and more couples intending to divorce are seeking cost effective and

family-focused divorce services these days, and as a result choose to try mediation before retaining attorneys. In

addition, judges across Minnesota have made it clear they don’t want to see couples come into court without attempting

mediation first. In response, attorneys often refer unsettled cases to mediators prior to going to trial.

Ideally, couples settle what they can on their own; work with a mediator to help negotiate and document all their

agreements; and then turn things over to a scrivener who drafts the necessary legal documents for a joint divorce filing.

Once all this is done, people can move forward and focus on the next chapter in their lives.

“I was very pleased with how well the whole process went,” says Becky.

The divorce cost Kurt and Becky just $5,000, well below the national average of $15,000 – $30,000, and the split was

amicable.

Johnson says it makes him feel good to know he has made a difference for Kurt and Becky, and the many other clients he

has worked with since starting his business.

“I wouldn’t have this career if I hadn’t gone through a divorce myself,” he says. “I think we all have a passion for helping

people because of what we went through ourselves.”

“My only regret about my divorce is I never wrote a thank you note to my ex for leaving,” adds

Goldstein. “I never would have started my own practice and had such a passion to help others not make the same

mistakes I made.”

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