Mediating a dissolution of marriage can save the parties thousands of dollars, no matter how small or large the estate. If the marital estate is large, mediation can save the community tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars. Of course, if the marriage is very brief and has no financial issues, the most economic resource is the Los Angeles Superior Court’s Family Law Facilitator. These services are available to the public throughout the county.
But let’s start with an analysis of a medium-small case: Parties were married for 12 years, have 2 minor children, a house with a mortgage and some equity, a savings account, and an employer-provided retirement plan. If both parties work, then the question is if sufficient disparity exists between their earnings to create the need for spousal support. Though different elements can determine the amount of temporary versus permanent spousal support, often the critical issues are the same and an experienced family law attorney serving as mediator can quickly explain the law, helping the parties focus on the most important items. This will save the parties anywhere from $3,000 to $6,000 on a contested Request for Order (“RFO”) for temporary support and even greater savings on an expensive trial on the same issue.
Assuming child custody/visitation does not divide the parties, many of the same financial issues used to resolve the spousal support question will come to bear to determine “guideline” child support. Aside from the financial factors driving the guideline equation, most of which also figure into the spousal support analysis, the key element of child support is how much time the children spend with each parent – the “timeshare” factor. As we are assuming no disputes exist over the parenting plan, an experienced family law mediator can assist the parties to look at the parenting plan, review the legal authorities applicable to custodial quantification, and come up with a rational and fair timeshare percentage. Again, this will save the parties a few to several thousands of dollars formally battling over guideline support in an RFO. Even if the parties have some significant disputes over child custody, an experienced family law mediator can help them bring in mediation oriented child custody evaluators or counselors to help them resolve their differences. Thus, they can save many thousands or tens of thousands of dollars that will follow from a contested custody fight.
Further savings can be gained when mediating property division. Some judicial officers will accept the testimony of the parties and their realtors for a fair market value (“FMV”) estimate, many judges will want the appraisal report, and even testimony, of a licensed real estate appraiser. The appraisal report will cost approximately $1,200 to $1,500 for a single-family residence located in the Santa Clarita or San Fernando Valleys (about the same for most of suburban Los Angeles County). If the appraiser is called in for testimony, his/her fees will easily double that amount. Mediation allows the parties to select familiar and ethical real estate agents and brokers to provide them with relatively accurate FMV presentations. Any minor differences in the FMVs shown in the parties’ real estate presentations can be easily negotiated with the input of a qualified mediator.
The law applicable to division of savings and other bank accounts is relatively straight-forward. Whatever the balance is on the date of separation (“DOS”) should be divided equally between the parties. However, there may be some post-DOS deposits or payments in those accounts that should be allocated to one or the other party. The mediator can also explain the statutory and case law most applicable to those transactions, allowing the parties to quickly and economically resolve any questions. Once more, this will save them considerable sums over the cost of formally litigating their bank account claims.
Last is the disposition of the community’s employer-provided retirement and/or pension plan(s). Different considerations come into play if part of the retirement account or plan benefits accrued before the date of marriage (“DOM”) or after the DOS. As with the other aspects of the dissolution of marriage discussed above, the knowledgeable and experienced family law attorney can review the salient authorities dealing with the facts of the parties’ retirement asset history and help them decide a fair and logical approach to dividing the community’s pension plan. Not to be tedious, but this kind of efficiency in litigation will yield a bonus crop of savings to the family when the hostile joinder of the retirement plans, actuarial analysis of the plans/accounts values, and trial to divide it (or them), will total several thousand dollars in legal fees and costs.
A qualified and experienced family law mediation attorney will charge from $400 to $600 per hour. The process discussed above will require anywhere from 10 to 25 hours of the mediator’s time, if the parties proceed with relative cooperation and efficiency. Thus, the approximate range of costs for the assistance of a good mediator will be $4,000 to $10,000 ($400.00), or $6,000 to $15,000.00. If all of the issues we have reviewed go through formal litigation, the minimum cost to the parties will likely range from about $20,000 to $30,000.
These are the possible expenses to resolve the financial issues and division of a relatively modest community estate. With larger estates, the savings can dwarf those shown above. While it is not reasonable to expect every dissolution of marriage case to be susceptible to a mediated and amicable resolution, it is clear that the financial, and consequently emotional, burden on the family will be substantially reduced by achieving a successful mediation strategy.