With Father’s Day approaching, I’ve been thinking about my dad, who is no longer with us except for fond memories of his life.
When I was growing up (1960s and early 1970s), most fathers were the primary earners in a family, and ours was no exception. My dad worked long hours, including a difficult commute into New York City from our suburban home.
So our time together was mainly on weekends and vacations. Dad did his best to make weekends fun. As a teenager especially, we played a lot of tennis, a sport we both enjoyed. (I still play with passion, thanks to him.)
I was fortunate. I grew up in a two-parent household where my parents worked together to create a healthy childhood experience for my siblings and me.
The end of a marriage often requires a reevaluation of each parent’s role in the future co-parenting relationship—a relationship that will unfold in two separate households.
In a family that is facing a divorce in current times, circumstances can be much different. Either parent may be the primary earner, and either parent may be the primary caretaker. Or both may work full time, and childcare may be handled with hired assistance (an expense that may not be as possible in the divorced circumstance). The end of a marriage often requires a reevaluation of each parent’s role in the future co-parenting relationship—a relationship that will unfold in two separate households.
In the wake of a divorce, I’ve often heard a parent in mediation question the other spouse’s ability to change his or her way of demonstrating commitment to caring for the children. There is often a built-in (negative) expectation that the other spouse is incapable of change. It’s my feeling that, while it can be true that a spouse may not be willing to change to save a marriage, that same person may respond very differently to the challenge of becoming a co-parent. Parents may “step up,” based on a desire to reinforce love and concern for their children, even as they are choosing to relinquish the commitment to their marriage.
In divorce mediation, we create a parenting plan that defines how children will be cared for, post-divorce. Included in that agreement can be an exploration of how each parent wants to respond to the challenge of change. There is discussion of expectations (each parent’s expectations for the other) and an expression of the willingness of each to meet the other’s needs as they commit to creating an ongoing and successful co-parenting relationship.
On a final note, as I think about my dad and my own experience as a parent (of now-adult children), I realize I feel myself to be as much a parent today as I was when my children were younger. When I grew up and left home, I’m sure my own parents felt the same way. Parenting is a lifetime experience—a joy and a challeng—that involves an evolving job description as both parents and children grow older.
In a recent online discussion among attorneys who are also mediators, this topic was raised: When neither spouse is currently dating or otherwise involved romantically with another person, what protocols will be followed for the children when someone new comes into the picture?
In planning for futures after divorce, mediation clients often struggle with this question. In my own mediation sessions, I encourage clients to explore the following with regard to new romantic relationships and their effect on children:
Based on the collective wisdom and preferences of the parents, making a plan for something that could likely happen in the future will reinforce the foundation of effective co-parenting.
Arguably, it may be difficult to legally enforce any of the protocols agreed to in mediation and incorporated into a parenting plan. However, I endorse the concept that children benefit from a strong co-parenting relationship. Based on the collective wisdom and preferences of the parents, making a plan for something that could likely happen in the future will reinforce the foundation of effective co-parenting.
In the dialogue that followed this question on my online call, what I found to be particularly interesting was how differently professionals viewed the question of how parents should approach this topic.
One mediator (with extensive experience in working with children of divorce) spoke of the divorce establishing an opportunity for children to have an improved individual relationship with each parent. In divorce the parents both have a renewed focus on their children, instead of on their failed marriage. A new significant other could impact this strengthened relationship and may shift the parent’s focus off the children. That shift may in turn affect the child’s opinion of the new person and perhaps create a loyalty conflict for the child, if there is hostility expressed by the other parent.
Another mediator contributed a different viewpoint, from personal experience. While agreeing that there should be some reasonable time period for the new relationship to have gained a suitable level of significance, the mediator spoke of the work done with the other parent. Together they promoted an environment of acceptance of a new significant other by the children. The positive results for this family included a new person to love the children and an enrichment of the family structure.
What effect a new romantic relationship will have after divorce is something that cannot be easily answered, and, certainly, the answer will be unique for each family. The mediation process embraces the particular circumstances of each couple’s transition and poses hard questions with an aim to create a thoughtful approach to future developments.
Marriages end for many reasons. In some cases, the causes are extreme enough (infidelity, dishonesty, abuse) to undermine any sense of respect between spouses. In other situations, the choice to divorce stems from different factors that may not erode respect.
Mediation is intended to be a civil and respectful process. Because the emotions associated with ending a marriage can often trigger disrespectful statements and behaviors during mediation sessions, one of the roles of a professional divorce mediator is to facilitate open and honest dialogue—while at the same time maintaining a safe environment for everyone.
The principle I endorse is that you don’t have to respect someone in order to be respectful. As a mediator, it would be unacceptable for me to require that my clients respect each other. Yet I feel totally comfortable in actively encouraging respectful behavior.
I realize how hard it can be for one or both spouses to feel that they can respect each other, given the circumstances that bring them to divorce. The principle I endorse is that you don’t have to respect someone in order to be respectful. As a mediator, it would be unacceptable for me to require that my clients respect each other. Yet I feel totally comfortable in actively encouraging respectful behavior.
So here are some ways in which you can be respectful in mediation, whether or not you feel respect for your spouse:
Fortunately, many of my clients have ended their marriages but have not stopped having respect for each other. They have just grown apart, or realized that their expectations for each other are no longer in sync. Or perhaps they have lost the basic ability to be happy in their marriage. Regardless of where you lie on the spectrum of respect for one another, consider these suggestions about respectful behavior to help you both as you navigate the transition toward ending your marriage.
What can you do to further the process of reaching agreement before or during divorce mediation? My clients frequently ask me that question.
When you engage my services as a mediator, I have no expectation that you will have discussed any of the aspects of your divorce ahead of time... [But] if you and your spouse have worked out some agreements on your own, that is commendable, as this can often reduce the time we spend in mediation.
When you engage my services as a mediator, I have no expectation that you will have discussed any of the aspects of your divorce ahead of time. Interestingly, you may think you need to have agreements BEFORE you begin mediation. But that is not the case.
On the other hand, if you and your spouse have worked out some agreements on your own, that is commendable, as this can often reduce the time we spend in mediation. Since a goal of our process is informed decision making, I will review your areas of agreement, with the intent of exploring any logistical considerations and confirming that the plans are workable.
While I would not seek to undo anything that you’ve agreed to, decisions that can be implemented successfully and hold up over time are the ones that will usually best meet your expectations. In reviewing what you have come to, together, I may highlight concerns that an attorney or a judge may raise when there are differences between the terms of your agreement and legal guidelines. This applies especially to the financial support of children.
During the mediation process, the intervals between mediation sessions also create an opportunity for you and your spouse to have discussions. Having that time is a key advantage of the process. I’ve been told about attorneys in divorce litigation who create firewalls between their clients. Not so in my process—I encourage an open door for communication, with certain guidelines.
For example, any constructive dialogue that leads to exploring settlement options and weighing the pros and cons can be helpful. At the same time, any hint of conflict should be seen as a warning to press “pause” and resume the conversation with me as mediator. Remember, I am a trained conflict resolution specialist.
You will ultimately be the ones who can best determine your ability to work on your own to either start mediation with a foundation of early agreed upon decisions or further the progress made in mediation by working toward agreements on your own. As long as you see this as an opportunity and not as an obligation, expectations can be met, both in the mediation room and outside it.
This is our dog, (Sir) Winston and our cat, Thundercloud. They are camped out in my home office. Our human children are grown and off on their own, so these guys are the “kids” in the house. And we love them very much (almost as much as our real children).
After all, who doesn’t love their pets?
For years, it seems that the legal system has viewed pets as property, while, in reality, our pets are much more to most of us than possessions.
This is why any divorce mediation I conduct includes a discussion about pets. For years, it seems that the legal system has viewed pets as property, while, in reality, our pets are much more to most of us than possessions. They live and breathe; they require love and attention; they require food, shelter and trips to the veterinarian. Sounds like children to me, except for the clothing and perhaps the attitude (although Thundercloud has more attitude than our kids ever did, combined).
Any conversation about pets is likely to include these questions:
In some states, like Illinois, the ownership of and responsibility for a pet who was adopted or acquired during the marriage can be decided by a court, awarded either solely to one spouse or jointly to both. In making these decisions, the well being of the pet is considered.
Because pets matter, and because they deserve thoughtful planning just like all the other aspects of divorce, mediation creates a neutral setting where these decisions can be discussed, taking into account the needs of the spouses and the needs of the pets.
Divorcing couples face uncertainty as they attempt to reach decisions on how to move forward with their lives. Mediation creates an opportunity to address that uncertainty through dialogue that is facilitated by a neutral mediator.
A successful mediation outcome establishes a plan that, by definition, provides both spouses with greater certainty about their futures. Important decisions are made about how to divide and distribute the assets and debts of the marriage.
Planning for the Present
There are aspects of the mediated plan that relate to parenting arrangements and financial support. These decisions affect the immediate circumstance of the family and increase certainty and understanding. But life, by its very nature, involves change—different jobs (or unemployment), fluctuations in income, altered schedules, and new residences, to name a few. All these can require adjustments to an established plan.
Modifying the Plan
Laws pertaining to parenting arrangements and financial support include provisions for modifications to parenting plans, child support and spousal maintenance. After a divorce settlement, there is generally a requirement that the person who is requesting a change must apply to the court and demonstrate that the change is significant enough to warrant a court review.
The mediation process allows for more flexibility and foresight to anticipate change and plan specifically for how future circumstances may affect current arrangements established by the divorcing couple.
Fortunately, the mediation process allows for more flexibility and foresight to anticipate change and plan specifically for how future circumstances may affect current arrangements established by the divorcing couple. Anticipating future changes that may affect child support or maintenance payments, for example, many clients will develop a specific formula for determining how they will modify the amounts being paid. This allows for a clear path forward and clarity amidst unpredictability, avoiding the need for future court action. In some situations, clients simply agree to renegotiate with each other, using mediation as a fallback option if they are unable to come up with an agreement on their own.
The flexibility to anticipate and accommodate change in the present is one of many advantages of using a mediation process. The time spent now to address how to adapt current agreements for future contingencies can pay off in reduced stress and less time and money required to resolve issues in the future.
As discussed in last week’s blog, divorcing parents face three important sets of decisions as they consider future college expenses, namely (1) saving for the future; (2) determining parental vs. student financial responsibility; and (3) allocating parental responsibility.
In divorce mediation, how parents address decisions about future college expenses for their children depends on the age of their children, the anticipated continuing resources available to the parents and attitudes toward future commitment.
In mediation, how parents address these decisions depends on the age of their children, the anticipated continuing resources available to the parents and attitudes toward future commitment.
Let’s explore three different approaches.
The Detailed Plan
This strategy works well for children of any age and usually requires parents to be able to plan realistically for future resources and be willing to make a commitment and stick to it. In this plan, parents have these options:
In some divorce mediation cases, parents create a plan that includes one or two of these options but not all three.
This strategy offers the benefit of certainty, while carrying the risk that unforeseen circumstances could affect the plan being followed by both parents. This could invite future conflict and misunderstanding.
The “Plan to Plan”
This strategy works better with younger children, where parents aren’t able to feel certain enough about the future to make a commitment now.
Essentially, this involves the parents scheduling a future time (usually during a child’s enrollment in high school) to discuss the topics of parental vs. student contribution and the allocation of the parental contribution.
This approach doesn’t force parents to make a commitment that they may be uncomfortable about making presently but still provides a deadline for addressing college expenses. Of course, there is a risk of future disagreement. For parents who aren’t enamored with the idea of having to discuss financial issues post-divorce, this may not be workable. Establishing provisions for future dispute resolution is also important to the success of this kind of planning.
This strategy works best where uncertainty is the greatest and resources are limited.
Most parents want to help their children financially in some way, yet the financial challenges of divorce can be significant enough to affect a parent’s ability to make a promise that may not be kept.
When parents choose this path, they are not abandoning their children financially. Instead, they are saying that, while they will do what they can to help, they don’t want to be bound by a legal agreement to any specific plan for paying for college costs.
The benefit of this strategy is that the risk of breaking a promise later is eliminated, as there are no promises being made. The risk relates to what can happen in the future if one parent expects the other parent to contribute to college and that parent is unwilling to do so. While courts can order parents to contribute to a child’s college education, how a court would address this when the parents agreed not to make a legal commitment is not clear, and the prospect of going to court does not usually appeal to divorce mediation clients.
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A fundamental part of the divorce mediation process is to allow for exploring options and identifying needs and interests that can be met by each option—with the end goal of a decision that best meets those requirements.
For many families, the future cost of a college education for their children will overshadow all other childhood expenses. So this is an important conversation for parents whether they are married or divorcing. In the circumstance of divorce mediation, my role is to place the topic front and center for discussion.
In the circumstance of divorce mediation, my role is to place the topic of financing your children’s college education front and center for discussion.
In my view, financial decision-making involving college education costs centers around three topics.
Saving for Future College Expenses
According to U.S. News & World Report, the average cost for tuition and fees alone for the 2020-21 academic year was $41,411 at private colleges and $11,171 for in-state residents at public colleges. This does not include room and board and other expenses, such as travel and books. For a four-year education, the price tag is substantial.
Where resources allow, many families will commit to a savings strategy for college. Many take advantage of 529 college savings plans, which allow for the earnings on savings to be tax-free as long as these funds are used for qualified educational expenses. For families who expect to qualify for financial aid, maintaining a 529 account may result in a small reduction in a future financial aid package.
Divorce mediation involves planning for the future of two separate households, so a college savings plan—when feasible in light of other expenses—will form an important component of the overall parental financial plan.
Parental vs. Student Financial Responsibility
Each family is faced with a decision that revolves around how much of college should be paid for by parents and how much by the child who is attending college. In my experience, there are many factors that may influence these decisions:
Allocating the Parental Contribution to College Costs
Once parents have determined how much they are willing/able to spend for college education, they must also decide how to split the cost. This may create discomfort, as there can be uncertainty about future resources that makes parents reluctant to commit to future expenses at the time of their divorce. When parents are able to make the commitment, other issues that need to be addressed will include how existing parental savings will factor into this split and how income and resources will affect the split.
Watch for the next post, where I will share alternative methods within mediation for approaching these important decisions about financing a college education.
As the tax filing deadlines approach, many of us are encouraged to think about tax planning for the year ahead. No matter what time of year it is when you are facing divorce, it’s the right time to think about taxes.
Your filing status will change in the year of your divorce, and this change will affect the entire year. So even if your divorce isn’t finalized until later this year (for example, in September), your new filing status will be in effect for all of 2021, and this will be your filing status when you file your taxes next year for 2021.
While you are married and filing joint returns, it’s very possible that a lot of taxes are withheld from one spouse’s paycheck but much less from the other’s pay. Since this is all added up at tax time, the net result may be fine, in that no taxes are owed or there may even be a big refund. But what happens now, if you are the person who did not have much taken out of your paycheck?
Here is an example:
John and Susan are getting divorced. John’s gross income is $100,000 per year ($3,846 biweekly). John has federal taxes withheld based on being married with two children claimed as dependents.
Based on the IRS Federal Tax Withholding Tables, John would have $175 in taxes withheld from each bi-weekly paycheck for a total of $4,550.
When John files his taxes for 2021, he is now filing as a single taxpayer, and he and Susan have agreed to each claim one child as a dependent.
John takes the standard deduction, since Susan is keeping the house and paying the mortgage, so he doesn’t have enough deductions to itemize.
And based on the tax rates for single taxpayers, and even with an increased child tax credit for 2021, John’s federal taxes will be $12,067, meaning that he will owe the IRS $7,517!
It’s essential to plan for the tax changes that will happen when you are getting divorced.
Now, this may be an extreme example, as perhaps John was having extra money withheld voluntarily from his paycheck. But the lesson to be learned here is that it’s essential to plan for the changes that will happen when you are getting divorced.
If you are getting divorced, this is what you can do NOW:
Using my skills as both a divorce mediator and experienced finance professional, I will help you think through what lies ahead, including how your tax situation may change and what steps to take to prepare.
Divorce mediation clients sometimes come to me believing they already have complete agreement on the issues that need to be resolved for them to move forward with divorce.
More often, however, the mediation process helps them to make mutually acceptable decisions they were unable to agree on themselves. By exploring these issues fully we can come to the best agreement for both parties.
Some clients don’t consider mediation at first, believing they must be substantially in agreement on all the issues for mediation to work. A new client recently called me to say that she and her husband had decided not to come to mediation, since they hadn’t worked through all the issues that they wanted to resolve for their uncontested divorce. That left me to wonder about this misconception: how many couples think they can’t come to mediation until they already agree on how they are going to live apart?
Mediation is the opportunity to use my training and experience to help you work through the many important issues and decisions that you face. Of course, it is always good when we begin mediation with some common understandings, but it is certainly NOT a requirement to have reached agreement on every issue.
As I explained to this new client, mediation is the opportunity to use my training and experience to help you work through the many important issues and decisions that you face. Of course, it is always good when we begin mediation with some common understandings, but it is certainly NOT a requirement to have reached agreement on every issue.
Separation and divorce carry uncertainty and fear that can often interfere with our ability to “be on the same page.” Whether you feel you have discussed every option or you are not sure where to begin, an experienced mediator can help you both gain the focus to think clearly and speak freely in a safe environment. As mediator I am not the judge, but, rather, I am your trusted host in the conversation, turning your contested issues into a mutually agreed-upon understanding that will lead to an uncontested divorce.