How divorce mediation works and what to expect

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Divorce mediation is a process that allows couples to meet with a specially-trained, neutral third-party to work through all the issues related to dissolving the marriage, dividing assets, and the time, financial and logistical ways of co-parenting of any children.

By keeping conflict low now, mediated divorce can help facilitate a healthy co-parenting relationship long-term.

Divorce mediation can be conducted by a specially trained therapist or counselor, a family attorney who has gone through special education, or a professional, certified mediator.

The benefits of meditation include lower stress, lower cost, and faster time period than involving multiple lawyers and court proceedings.

If you work with a mediator who is not also a family lawyer, you may want to or need to also hire an attorney to review and file the papers. Some affordable online divorce services can work well in this situation.

Mediation is a good choice for couples who:

  • Realize they have issues to work through before they can come to a settlement agreement, and are not capable of doing that without support
  • Are generally healthy people committed to amicably resolving their divorce
  • Are committed to staying out of court
  • Want to keep the details of their divorce process private since mediation is not recorded in the courts

Get started on your own with this free divorce settlement worksheet.

How does divorce mediation work? What are the stages of mediation?

In a mediated divorce, both spouses typically meet together with the mediator who works on behalf of both of them to reach a common goal, stay out of court, and move forward with their lives in an equitable, fair way. 

This is the divorce process:

  1. One or both parties goes through an in-take process, typically with the mediator’s assistant. You will share details about your marriage, family, kids, property, career and income and any reasons an agreement may be hard to achieve. 
  2. You and your spouse meet with the mediator who will explain how the process will go. These meetings will typically be in a law office, conference room or another setting. 
  3. Your mediator may choose to meet with the two of you together, or separately, or a combination of both.
  4. You will sign agreements about who will pay the mediator, any retainer and set a schedule. 
  5. You will meet with the mediator according to your agreement until a divorce settlement agreement is reached, or the mediation process falls apart and each of you then must hire an attorney or otherwise pursue the divorce separately. 
  6. Throughout the process expect to be tasked with providing legal and financial documents, think through your goals for the divorce and afterwards, and make compromises to help reach a peaceful and fair agreement.
  7. Once an agreement has been reached, you must then file the divorce agreement in your local court house. If your mediator is an attorney, they can do that on your behalf for an additional fee. Or, you might file your divorce yourself, or hire an attorney to do that for you. 

One way to save money on your divorce is to get divorce papers from your courthouse, or through an affordable service like 3StepDivorce, our No. 1 recommended online divorce service. Read our 3 Step Divorce review, which explains that the company has:

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Complete guide to the divorce filing process

How long does divorce mediation take? 

While there is no known data about how long a divorce mediation takes vs a contested divorce, or a divorce in which both parties have an attorney, you can expect a mediated divorce to take far, far less time than a high-conflict divorce. 

Divorce mediation sessions are typically held in one- or two-hour blocks, and could be completed in a single session if the divorcing couple has most of their issues resolved beforehand, or can go on for several months if there is a complicated financial picture or other complexities.  

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How much does divorce mediation cost?

If you are working with an attorney for your mediation, expect to pay their typical hourly fee. However, because you and your spouse are sharing one attorney, and mediated divorce typically takes far, far fewer hours to settle, mediated divorce can cost as little as a few thousand dollars, compared with the average divorce with attorneys, which averages $15,000 per spouse. 

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How to prepare for divorce mediation

Mentally, it is helpful to prepare for divorce mediation by keeping an open mind, aiming to resolve the end of your marriage in a low-conflict way that aims to be fair, kind and forgiving. For practical matters in preparation for your divorce mediation …. 

Divorce mediation checklist

Here is a list of documents and you should bring to your divorce mediation, also outlined in this free divorce settlement worksheet:

  • Federal and state tax returns for the past two years
  • Recent pay stubs
  • W-2’s and/or 1099’s
  • Health insurance records showing cost 
  • Business interests valuation
  • Real estate property deeds and valuation 
  • Record of any vehicles owned, and related loans and leases
  • All bank accounts 
  • Retirement account statements 
  • Any brokerage or investment account records 
  • Any stock options or executive compensation 
  • Life insurance policies 
  • List of any valuables including jewelry, antiques, art, collections
  • Any credit card, personal loans or other debt 

Things to ask for in divorce

Here is a list of items you must agree on before filing your divorce settlement:

Is divorce final after mediation? Is it legally binding? 

Your marriage is not officially over and the divorce is not finalized until you file your mediated divorce agreement in court, and it is authorized, and a divorce decree issued. 

Can I change my mind after mediation?

You can step out of mediation at any time and hire an attorney or otherwise change your course of action. However, once the divorce decree is filed and signed, that is a binding contract. Though, in family court, you can always revisit custody and child support.

You can also work from this free divorce settlement worksheet.

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Divorce mediators: What you need to know

Are divorce mediators lawyers?

A divorce mediator can be a lawyer, but a law degree or license is not required for an individual to practice divorce mediation. Family lawyers, family therapists, counselors, and financial planners or advisors can all act as divorce mediators. If your divorce mediator is not a lawyer, that’s fine! 

Couples therapists can serve as divorce mediators. Learn more about online couples counseling.

How long does it take to get divorced with a mediator?

Just as no two marriages are 100% alike, every divorce is unique in its own ways. Couples with a lot of assets to divide or who have a hard time agreeing on child custody may find that mediation takes longer than couples with simpler finances, or who are splitting on friendlier terms.

That being said, in simpler cases, mediation can often be accomplished over the course of three to six sessions, which are typically spread out over about a month. 

Who pays for a mediator in a divorce?

Typically, both spouses share the expense of the divorce mediator, though sometimes you may choose to divide the bill equitably according to each partner’s income. 

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How much do divorce mediators make?

Divorce mediator fees vary by a number of factors, including location and experience, but typically fall in the ballpark of $100 and $300 per hour. It’s possible to pay for half-day or full-day sessions, which can be less expensive compared to paying hourly for a mediator.

Do I need a divorce mediator?

Whether or not you work with a divorce mediator — vs hiring an attorney, or working it out between the two of you — is a personal decision. 

Sometimes a judge or court may order you to go through mediation (called court-ordered mediation). If you fail to comply with court-ordered mediation you can be found in contempt of court, at which point you may face a court fine and even potentially detention. 

Can I refuse divorce mediation?

Yes. If your spouse wants a mediated divorce but you don’t, you can refuse mediation. The only time that mediation is required is if it is court-ordered. 

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What happens if my spouse refuses mediation?

The whole point behind divorce mediation is to allow you and your spouse to come to an agreement about the terms of the divorce so that you don’t need to involve the courts. But you can only reach an agreement if both of you are committed to finding common ground. If your spouse refused mediation, pursuing a collaborative divorce may be another, lower-conflict option. 

Is divorce mediation a good idea?

If both you and your spouse are committed to finding common ground, then divorce mediation can be an excellent means of divorcing. But divorce mediation doesn’t always work. It’s important to understand that mediation can fail, at which point you will need to contact a divorce attorney. 

Pros and cons of divorce mediation

The pros of devorce mediation include:

  • Quicker resolution (usually) 5 tips for a quick divorce
  • Lower costs
  • Less stress because you are making a conscious decision to work together — and not leaving your future up to a judge
  • A better post-divorce relationship with your soon-to-be-ex spouse, which can be especially helpful if you have children
  • More privacy, as divorce mediation is private, while court is public

Potential cons of divorce mediation include:

  • If negotiations fail, then mediation can end up being a waste of money and time
  • Divorce mediators cannot give you legal advice, as a divorce lawyer can
  • If your spouse is hiding assets from you, a mediator has no way of uncovering these assets
  • Issues of domestic violence or abuse are typically not suited to mediation
  • Mediation does not guarantee a fair outcome; it just helps you and your spouse come to an agreement

Collaborative divorce vs. mediation: What is the difference?

Both collaborative divorce and mediated divorce are lower-conflict, amicable ways spouses can come to an agreement on the terms of a divorce without going to court. The primary difference is that a mediated divorce is handled by a single third-party mediator, who guides the discussion in order to facilitate an agreement, while a collaborative divorce involves both spouses hiring divorce attorneys, who negotiate for their client under an agreement that the case will not go to court. If either party does decide to go to court, both spouses must hire new attorneys — which adds considerable cost and time to the case.

The mediator is concerned with helping both spouses come to an agreement. Collaborative  lawyers’ goal is to help you achieve fair terms of your divorce without going to court.  

Questions to ask prospective divorce mediators before you hire one

Don’t be shy about interviewing any professional you hire to help with your divorce. If you are considering hiring a divorce mediator, here are some questions to ask …

What is your background and education? Do you have special certifications in mediation?

Formal training is just one indication of a mediator’s ability — or whether they are a fit for your family. It may be important that you work with an attorney, or may find that a counselor is a more natural fit for your style. Perhaps you prioritize lots of formal training, or not at all. You may be impressed by mediators who have advocated for mediation requirements in local courts, or perform pro bono legal work in their field.

Some trained mediators may not be attorneys but work closely with divorce lawyers who can fill in tasks like writing a divorce agreement and filing the paperwork.

How much will divorce mediation cost?

Mediators typically charge by the hour. Ask about up-front costs, any retainers, what filing fees or any other expenses, so you are not caught off-guard. Ask what the average total cost of mediating a divorce is at the firm.

How much experience do you have?

If your divorce is simple and amicable, extensive experience may not be a requirement for hiring a divorce mediator. However, you may feel more comfortable if your mediator has a long track record, or works in tandem with a senior mediator who can support a more junior mediator.

How do you typically work with clients? What is your mediation strategy?

As with the other questions, these answers will give you a sense of whether this mediator is a good fit for you, and what you might expect working with you. Look for someone who is patient in explaining their methodology, puts you at ease, is helpful in answering your questions, and expresses genuine interest in helping your family move through this difficult time with ease.

How did you come to be a mediator? Why did you choose this work?

This is the professional’s chance to express their passion and commitment for helping families, advocating for better courts and divorces, and telling you about themselves as people.

How successful are you in keeping couples out of court?

This might be the greatest sign of success!

Searching “divorce mediation near me?” How to find a mediator

Here are common ways to find a good divorce mediator:

  • Referral from a friend 
  • Search ‘divorce mediator near me’ and call around to a few top results to see who you connect with
  • Search a site like lawyers.com or avvo.com
  • Seek out a therapist skilled in divorce mediation 
  • Ask at your local court house, which may have a referral service to local family mediators
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Divorce mediators vs. divorce lawyers

In general, a divorce mediator is committed to resolving the end of your marriage quickly, affordably, and with low drama. This is a great option for most couples.

Divorce attorneys are necessary in cases where one or both parties are committed to fighting, cases in where a spouse or children are in danger at the hands of abuse, addiction or severe mental illness. In theses cases you should hire a divorce lawyer.

A mediator or divorce lawyer can be helpful in conjunction with an online divorce you do yourself.

Even if you join the majority of divorcing couples and go for an uncontested divorce, an attorney’s expertise is useful.

If you can settle your divorce without going to court or spending tens of thousands of dollars, consider a quality online divorce platform.

Wealthysinglemommy.com founder Emma Johnson is an award-winning business journalist, activist, author and expert. A former Associated Press reporter and MSN Money columnist, Emma has appeared on CNBC, New York Times, Wall Street Journal, NPR, TIME, The Doctors, Elle, O, The Oprah Magazine. Winner of Parents magazine’s “Best of the Web” and a New York Observer “Most Eligible New Yorker," her #1 bestseller, The Kickass Single Mom (Penguin), was a New York Post Must Read. As an expert on divorce and gender, Emma presented at the United Nations Summit for Gender Equality and multiple state legislature hearings. More about Emma's credentials.

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