Some things we've learned over the years...
Maybe you've been divorced for years or maybe you're just starting the process; but if your divorce involves children, you are writing the story that they will tell - to partners, therapists, friends - for years to come. Experts (and the courts!) agree that committing to the following "Best Practices" will help that story be a positive one:
1. Minimize conflict.
Conflict in divorce is natural. Unfortunately, this conflict can destabilize a child's environment. Commit to minimizing conflict by agreeing not to fight in front of the children and to resolve issues through mediation instead of litigation.
2. Avoid casting the other parent in negative light.
Regardless of your personal feelings about your ex, they remain your child's parent. Be respectful of that relationship by avoiding the urge to demonize the other parent or denigrate the love and affection they have for your child. If you cannot bear to say something nice, at least keep it neutral.
3. Maintain a united front.
Rules may differ between households, but maintaining a united front regarding the need to respect the other parent's rules at their home adds some consistency to your co-parenting relationship that is comforting to your child.
4. Give your child space.
You're not the only ones going through the divorce. Your child is too. Allow your child space to adjust to their new family situation: space for gathering their thoughts through journaling, therapy, or quiet time, privacy when they're communicating with your ex (no eavesdropping or interrogating the child about phone conversations) and the freedom to experience their own feelings about the situation.
5. Be flexible.
The most successful co-parents are flexible co-parents. Life happens - and that may require changes to schedules and plans. Offering good will in the form of flexibility to meet the other parents requests for schedule changes yields good will to your requests. Being respectful of the other parent's time by keeping requests for changes to a minimum further builds good will.
Divorcing parents must reach agreement on several issues related to their children. Prior to meeting with your mediator, consider your preferences with regard to the following areas:
1. Parenting time. The court will want to know how you and your spouse wish to divide parenting time. What schedule makes the most sense for your family? Consider your children's schedules, your work schedules, and the distance between the your homes.
2. Decision making. Formerly referred to as "legal custody," the court now wants to know which parent will have responsibility for making decisions for the children in 4 main areas: medical, educational, religious upbringing, and extra-curricular. Parents often choose to have "joint decision-making" responsibility for all 4 areas. Occasionally, however, parents may agree that one parent will have "sole decision-making" responsibility for one or more areas.
3. Division of expenses. In addition to child support (which covers contributions to a child's food, shelter, and clothing expenses while the child is with the other parent,) the court will want to know how you and your spouse will be dividing other expenses for the children. Who will provide and pay for health insurance, out of pocket medical expenses, child care, school tuition and fees, extracurricular activities, etc?
4. Introductions of new partners. An area that provokes a lot of discord between divorced co-parents is the introduction of a new partner to the children. The court wants to minimize conflict in this area and therefore wants you to consider ahead of time agreements around these introductions. Would you want it to happen only in the case of a serious committed relationship? Only when a relationship is at least 1 year old? Would you want a heads up from your ex prior to them making the introduction? Do you want additional agreements around overnights with a partner when the children are also present?
5. Holidays. Planning for post divorce holiday time with the children can be tricky. Think of ideas for a holiday schedule that honor important family traditions, allow for the children to celebrate with both parents (whether you are alternating years or splitting the actual day), and allow for travel if you plan to visit family out of town.
Thinking about your preferences with regard to each of these areas ahead of time will allow your mediation session time to be spent more efficiently.
A divorce mediator plays a critical role in helping her clients achieve their goals through this new transition. Here are 5 things your mediator should be able to provide:
1. Legal information. Your mediator should be deeply familiar with Illinois divorce laws and should have a system for remaining up to date on the frequent changes to the statutes. As your mediator, I'm allowed and obligated to give you legal "information". I will share with you the standards the court is looking to uphold, rules about division of property and debt, calculations for child support and spousal maintenance, and best practices for child related agreements. When I am acting as your mediator however, I must remain neutral. I am not permitted to also represent one of you in the role of an advocate and therefore, I cannot give my clients legal "advice". ( I cannot tell you "Oh, that's a great deal, you should take it!" or "I bet you could do better than that.")
2. Ideas for settlement. An experienced mediator will have hundreds or thousands of mediations under her belt and will have seen everything. As an experienced mediator, I will be able to draw on the successful negotiations of past clients to help you think of new and creative ideas for settling a particular issue that you may be stuck on.
3. Encouragement. A good mediator will remind you that you do not have to have everything figured out before beginning the process. Most couples I work with arrive at mediation with no agreements in place. Over 95% of the couples I work with leave mediation with all issues resolved. I'll help you get there!
4. Referrals and a team. A good mediator practices within her skill set. I have developed a complementary team of professionals that we can call upon to assist us through more technical areas of your divorce. If you need a pension valued, we can bring in an actuary. If you're feeling the need for support, we can bring in your attorney. If you need to discuss tax ramifications of your decisions, we can bring in a CPA.
5. Documentation of your agreement. Your mediator should have the skills to prepare a comprehensive documentation of your entire divorce agreement that was reached in mediation. I will provide you with a Memorandum of Understanding within 10 days of leaving mediation. This document will contain your agreements on all of the issues the court will be needing agreements on in order to grant your divorce.