What is Mediation and I Am I Required to Go in a Florida Divorce or Paternity Case?

1174069_management_team.jpgIn a divorce or paternity case involving issues with children including time-sharing/visitation, parental responsibility or child support, the court may refer the parties to mediation. Florida law provides for the judge in such a proceeding to send the parties to mediation over disputed matters to determine if such things can be settled out of court, Florida Statute 61.183. As a divorce and family lawyer in Jacksonville, it has been my experience that mediation can be beneficial to both parties without going to trial because the parties have more control over the outcome.

What is mediation? Mediation is a formal negotiation process involving the parties, their attorneys and a neutral third party (the mediator). The mediator’s role is to help facilitate the negotiation process by working with both parties to reach the best outcome. Mediation often starts with everyone in one room (e.g. a conference room) and the party’s attorney will give a brief overview of the case and what the client is looking to achieve. Once the attorneys have completed the opening statement to the mediator, the parties are divided into two separate rooms. The mediator will typically start the process by talking to the party that initiated or filed the court action and will then go in between the rooms to see what may be resolved. Everything that is shared with the mediator is confidential and everything that happens at mediation is confidential and cannot be used at trial if the case is not resolved.

While going through this process, the mediator can make suggestions to both parties about what his/her experience has been with the judge in the case and give recommendations for offers to each party in order to help facilitate an agreement. However, the mediator is not allowed to provide legal advice to either party, even if she/he is not represented.

In mediating the case, the parties may agree upon things that the court may not hear at trial, such as future children expenses (e.g. college tuition). The parties have a little more room to sift through issues that they find important for the children that stem away from simply determining who will have majority time-sharing to such things as where the kids will go to school, how that will be determined, how division of certain activities will be paid for, etc. It gives parents an opportunity to think through what they want for the children and not just leave it to the judge to decide what is in their children’s best interest.

If an agreement is reached at mediation, then the mediator may draft a consent agreement. The agreement may be in the form of a consent final judgment and both parties normally sign before leaving the mediation. The signing of the document not only formalizes it, but also makes it binding if one party were to later change his or mind. The consent agreement must be provided to the judge for approval and his/her signature and then entered with the court. Once the order has been entered, it is an enforceable order that the parties must abide by.