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'90s FAMILY : Let's Make a Deal : Think divorce is tough? Try planning a family event during one. That's when all-occasion mediation helps.

October 05, 1994|KENTON ROBINSON | THE HARTFORD COURANT

For even the most happily married couple, planning a child's wedding or bar mitzvahcan lead to skirmishes over everything from the price tag to the guest list.

Your mate says that if you don't invite Uncle Leo, you will scandalize the family; you worry that Uncle Leo's tendency to hit the nearest bottle and hit on the nearest blonde will scandalize the family.

If these blessed events are difficult for the happily married couple to negotiate, imagine what a source of strife they can be for the couple that's divorced or divorcing.

So perhaps it's no surprise that some former or soon-to-be-former couples are bringing such issues to divorce mediators. And mediators, who usually hammer out divorce agreements that cover such matters as child custody and alimony, are helping them come to terms on everything from color schemes to flower arrangements.

It's not happening so frequently that you'd call it a trend, but several mediators say they have had occasion to mediate children's weddings and bar and bat mitzvahs in the course of their parents' divorces.

Barbara Aaron, a Hartford, Conn., lawyer who's been doing divorce mediations for five years, says she is currently mediating a bar mitzvah--her first--for a couple handling the rest of the divorce in the courts.

"I'm not mediating the whole divorce, I'm just mediating that piece of it," Aaron says. "They're in litigation. And litigation, as we all know, takes a long time, and the court system doesn't accommodate bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs, so they needed to get this issue handled."

Mediators are often lawyers who also handle litigated divorces, or psychologists or psychiatrists who work with lawyers to put together agreements that will be accepted by the courts.

Rather than hiring two lawyers and sicking them on each other in court, couples can sit down with a mediator and put together an agreement that they can then present to the court as their settlement.

It is cheaper.

"Our average one is about $3,500, but without kids it might be $1,500, something like that," says Bonnie Robson at the Family Law Mediation Service at the Institute of Living. "It really depends on how complicated the asset picture is. And also how agreeable the parties are. You know, lawyers always say that an angry divorce is an expensive divorce."

A mediated divorce can cost anywhere between $2,000 and $6,000, depending on the complexity of the case, Aaron says. Compare that to a litigated case where two lawyers are duplicating each other's efforts, and every hour they spend waiting around the courthouse is billable.

"I mediated a divorce that ended up costing the parties somewhere around $4,000 to $5,000," Aaron says. "If they (had) litigated this divorce, it would probably have cost them each minimally $15,000 to $25,000 apiece. Because it was a complicated case, there were children involved, there were a lot of assets."

It is faster.

In some areas, a mediated divorce can be completed in 90 days.

A litigated divorce can take anywhere from two to four years.

"I've got a case that's just coming up for trial in October," Aaron says. "And the case was started two years ago."

And, as a rule, it is much less nasty.

"I sometimes see clients who are in the midst of litigating a divorce, and boy, how they end up hurting each other and becoming very suspicious of each other and the thousands of dollars that they spend on litigation, and I just know it's not necessary for most of them," says Dr. Leslie Strong, a mediator and president of the Connecticut Assn. for Marriage and Family Therapy. "Some people seem to require the catharsis of a battle. Most people really don't."

The people most likely to seek mediation, Strong says, tend to be those for whom "the family is bigger than their hurt or anger over the divorce."

He cites the example of one couple he worked with whose son was getting married even as they were getting divorced.

"Much of their discussion was about how to cope with the wedding," Strong says. "It seemed ironic to them to be going to the wedding of their son while at the same time knowing they were getting a divorce, and it kind of tinged the wedding with sadness, but they handled themselves with a lot of consideration."

Despite the fact that mediation has been available for many years, mediators (perhaps not surprisingly) argue that it's still not as popular as it ought to be. A lot of people, seemingly unaware of the option, still choose to go through litigation's gantlet.

And, Robson says, more than half the cases that come before family court are "post-judgment" matters, "people who are already divorced and there's something going on and someone isn't complying with a part of the agreement."

One solution to that problem, some mediators say, is something called mediation-arbitration, in which the mediator would be empowered to make binding decisions whena disagreement comes up.

Lloyd Frauenglass, a Glastonbury, Conn., lawyer who has been mediating divorces for about 15 years, is a strong proponent of that approach.

"The arbitration process is that you present your evidence just like you do to a judge and the arbitrator makes a decision," Frauenglass says. "Not a recommendation, a decision. You try to mediate, you do all the things that help people to get unstuck."

Other mediators have suggested that even couples who are not divorced or divorcing might find mediation a useful tool for resolving conflicts over big life decisions.

"Couples are not always in agreement even if they stay married and even if they have a good marriage," Robson says. "And what a mediator is is really a neutral third party who can help identify what the issues are and what issues they're in agreement about and what issues they're in conflict about and help them reach an agreement on it."

In other words, a mediator might even help you solve the problem of Uncle Leo.

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