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<xTITLE>California Divorce Mediation Checklist</xTITLE>

California Divorce Mediation Checklist

by Leyla Balakhane
February 2022 Leyla Balakhane

Divorce can be a devastating emotional process, regardless whether it is contested or uncontested.  Once divorce papers are served, the lives of family members will irrevocably change.  It is typically accompanied by harsh judgments and the need for a time to grieve.  Two key choices the participants can make will significantly minimize the emotional damage and substantially reduce the trauma to the individuals and the family.

The first is the choice to use a divorce mediator who will help you settle the issues in a manner that provides the clients with privacy, safety and economy, compared with traditional litigation.  The second is that the mediator becomes your collective and individual partner in guiding you through the myriad of issues and considerations that need to be worked through to reach a successful resolution.  This can include accountants, mental health professionals, and other sources of information necessary for you to reach your best mutually agreeable result.

When it comes to addressing the important issue of your children, a professional family law mediator will help the parties work out mutually-agreeable co-parenting plans that are built around the needs of the children to have contact with each parent.  The data from mental health professionals demonstrates unequivocally that the most damaging thing for children is conflict between mom and dad.  A professional mediator helps the parties work through difficult differences of opinion that many parents have in order to reach an agreement that accomplishes the goal of reducing conflict between the parents. What the law refers to as “custody”, the phrase parenting rights and responsibilities more accurately describes what is one of, if not the most important issue to address for divorcing parents.

How We Will Support You Towards  In the Transition to Your Post-Divorce Life 

Because mediation changes the client-experience from confrontational to collaborative, the mediator is able to support each party in working towards a successful resolution.  That begins with the initial phase of the process by providing you with a checklist that helps you prepare for the mediation sessions themselves. Included in this service is providing you with emotional support  as well as informational and practical support.

Our checklist will provide you with a greater understanding of each and every step in the process, keeping in mind that nothing is binding until you are completely satisfied that what you have agreed upon is what you want the finished agreement to be. More specifically, we focus on supporting both you and your soon to be former spouse during the discovery process of all necessary and important documents that can impact the choices you must make. These documents would typically include: all financial records (including separate bank accounts, joint bank accounts, savings accounts, investment accounts, credit reports, tax returns, retirement accounts, etc.), mortgage statements, medical bills, and other documents affecting your decision-making process and your financial future.  

Why Is Preparing for Divorce Mediation So Important? 

One of the most important aspects of our mediation process is the fact that you do not need to come in prepared to negotiate.  Mediation is the place where you get prepared to negotiate.  With a thorough analysis of all the financial information of the marriage, coupled with the development of a full range of your negotiation options, the mediation process is a private space within which divorcing individuals can safely work through preparing themselves to negotiate capably and competently.  Unlike traditional attorney-represented litigation, mediation clients are educated about their financial circumstances which helps prepare them for their transition into their new life.

Working through the issues in a divorce provides a client with a safe space to acquire the necessary information for decision-making on the most important issues in your life.  It gives you access to settlement possibilities that are considered without being sabotaged by emotions. Divorce is an emotionally challenging experience.  What is also true is that emotional decisions are rarely the best decisions in the long run.  A skilled mediator recognizes the emotions that clients are experiencing and helps them manage the emotions and make thoughtful, strategic decisions about how those issues are resolved. Consider the following ways that working together in mediation can benefit you:

  • You are jointly guided through the gathering of all necessary financial information you will need to make important decisions. Doing it together is not only incredibly efficient and cost-effective, but this method of information-gathering empowers each of the parties to be able to make decisions that are reached by mutual agreement and which maximize the benefit to each party compared with the random outcomes that result from litigation.

  • The collaborative cooperation that characterizes negotiation in mediation represents an enormous cost-savings compared with the waste and inefficiency of litigation with substantially increased benefits: financially, psychologically, and emotionally.

The great majority of our clients reside within the jurisdiction of the Los Angeles County Superior Court System.  Within that system, we have the capacity to keep your matters as private as possible in addition to the elements of confidentiality for the mediation process that CA Family Law recognizes and supports.

How to Tell If Your Divorce Falls Under California Family Law

The State of California has jurisdiction over a divorce if one of the parties has resided in CA for a minimum of six months and three months in the County in which the action is filed.

If these basic requirements are met, here are some key considerations to note:

  1. “No-Fault” Divorce – California pioneered this concept, which entitles you to ask for a divorce should you feel that your marriage is no longer working. Blame or wrongdoing by one of the spouses, as a prerequisite for ending a marriage relationship, was removed in 1971 with the passage of the modern Family Law Act.  The goal of the legislature was to establish that it is the policy of the State of California to allow anyone to end a marriage relationship simply because they no longer wish to be in that relationship. The question of blame was removed as a matter of public policy.  

Behaviors that used to be the reason for a divorce may still be relevant considerations in questions relating to matters of the minor children, including custody or parenting decisions.

  1. Community Property – California, along with a number of other states, is a Community Property state.  The time, effort, and energy the parties engage in to acquire their finances and assets are considered jointly owned regardless of how title is held.  At the same time, California protects separate property interests brought into the marriage or received during the marriage (e.g. inheritance, gifts, etc.) so long as certain requirements are met.  The details of these will be discussed and explained by your mediator. 

  2. Child Custody – California, just like most other states, puts both parents on equal grounds when it comes to deciding which how decisions regarding the custody of the child or children should be determined. The court does not inherently favor either spouse, but instead prioritizes what the court determines to be the “best interests” of the involved children. These kinds of decisions are often made by the court without a substantial understanding of all the factors that may be critical to such a decision.

Preparing to Mediate The Division of Property in a California Divorce

In mediation, you can expect the following process for making decisions on the division of the assets of the marriage.  The gathering of a list of all the assets and liabilities, the development of detailed information about these assets and liabilities that are critical to any decisions you will make, and the ability to obtain information from outside the process, such as accountants, financial planners, and mental health professionals, in order to make sure that you have all the information needed to make consenting and informed decisions.

  1. Current balance statements for all bank accounts 

E.g. Checking, savings, CD's, money markets

  1. Current balance statements for all children's accounts 

E.g.CD's, 529 plans, other custodial college savings plans

  1. Current balance statements for all stock and bond investment statements

  2. Make, model and year of all vehicles owned and a statement of the private party value for each as listed on Kelly Blue Book (www.kbb.com)

  3. Information of any pending civil lawsuit claims in which either or both spouses are a listed plaintiff(s)

  4. Statements of any outstanding loans, or verbal promises to repay a loan in which one or both spouses are the creditor(s)

  5. Current statements of all retirement accounts owned by each spouse

E.g.Company pension plans, 401(K)s, 403(b)s, 457's Thrift Savings Plans, TIAA-CREF, Traditional and Roth IRA's, SEP IRA's

 (Note that some plans may need to be valued by a professional actuary for their present-day market value)

  1. Statements of all other employment benefits 

E.g.Stock options, incentive, cash balance or golden parachute plans

  1. Current market value appraisals for all real estate owned 

E.g. Primary residence, marital home, any vacation homes, timeshares, investment properties or vacant land (Note to omit if spouses agree that the property is being placed for sale)

  1. An approximate value of all Personal Property and the contents of all homes owned

E.g.Financial value of all jewelry, art, antiques and other collectibles of specially significant value

(Note that items may need to be specially appraised for value if spouses are not able to agree on their value)

  1. Appraisals of all businesses owned for their estimated current market value

(Note to do so only if elected by the spouses) 

What About Mediating Divorce Debts and Liabilities? 

Understandably, the process of dividing debts and liabilities is mentally and emotionally taxing. After all, whether you’re a stay-at-home parent worried about losing the family home or the sole breadwinner that feels entitled to your hard work, there is an element of fear that you may lose your items in this process. Fortunately, divorce mediators are trained to handle this division by connecting you with the right experts to understand what you are entitled to and what you may have to let go of. The role of your divorce mediator is essential as they will guide you towards reaching an amicable and mutually beneficial compromise with your spouse. 

Most divorce mediators will begin looking at the below: 

  1. Current balance statement for all mortgages, home equity loans or lines of credit held on any properties owned

  2. Current balance statements for all motor vehicle loans

  3. Current balance statement for all student loans

  4. Statements for any other private loans, either verbal or with a written note, in which one or both spouses are debtor(s)

  5. Current balance statements for all credit card accounts

  6. Information on any pending civil lawsuits in which one or both spouses is/are a named defendant(s)

Proving Income in a California Divorce: Essential Documents

Especially during the pandemic, many of us have been impacted in one way or the other. This may include being let go from a job, starting a new job, or even stepping away from careers to support children and households. While this may be a turbulent time, it is critical that you prepare the following documents to help provide an accurate picture of your income:  

  1. Copies of pay stubs/income statements of each spouse for the previous 6 months of all W-2 or 1099 employment 

  2. Copies of State and Federal tax returns for the previous 3 years and all corresponding W-2 or 1099 employment 

  3. Copies of corporate tax returns for the previous 3 years and all corresponding W-2 or 1099 statements 

  4. Profit and loss statements for 3 years if one or both spouses have a business 

Parents: Essential Documents for Your Child Custody Matters

Divorce is already hard, but it is even harder on you as a parent. Not only are you dividing your assets, debts, and liabilities, but you are now also having to manage parenting time. Many couples who undergo divorce have a fear of family courts, but it is important for you and your spouse to focus on completing the evolutionof your family. Divorce mediators are equipped to foster healthy communication, in turn reducing potential conflict between you and your spouse and thus, padding the trauma divorce may have on your children. 

Your divorce mediator will assist you in reaching a peaceful transition towards collaborative co-parenting, and to speed up the process, you should come prepared with a working understanding of the following: 

  1. Protecting Children’s Rights: Working collaboratively with your spouse to shield your children from unnecessary aspects of the divorce.

  2. Forming A Parenting Plan: Joint vs. sole physical custody, monthly parenting schedule, holiday schedule, potential relocation of parent or child, educational decisions, medical decisions, etc. 

  3. Setting Up Child Support: California Child Support Guidelines, childcare expenses, educational expenses, child trust funds, college contributions, insurance coverages, etc. 

Bonus Documents to Have Before Divorce Mediation

  • Declaration sheet for all life insurance policies held by either or both spouses, and a statement of the cash surrender value of any whole or universal life insurance plans

  • Declaration sheet for all disability policies held by either or both spouses

  • Copy of marriage certificate

  • Copies of any trust documents

  • Copies of all pre-marital, and/or marital agreements in effect such as any pre or post nuptial agreements

  • Copies of any wills executed during the marriage

Choosing Your Private Divorce Mediator

The divorce process will be less complicated and even less lonely when you partner up with a private divorce mediator. However, not all divorce mediators are the same, and these are the key qualities you should look for when choosing which divorce mediator to work with. 

  1. Educator:Divorce mediator educates you on the mediation process to enable you to make your own informed decision

  2. Neutral:Divorce mediator does not have inherent biases but takes into consideration each stakeholder’s rights and interests

  3. Compassionate:Divorce mediator is genuinely invested in you and your family’s wellbeing as a whole

  4. Fair:Divorce mediator understands your family’s definition of fair and can reconcile that with the court’s definition while crafting solutions 

  5. Cost effective:Divorce mediator places you first and pay second, choosing to offer free divorce consultations that may include a complete marital estate assessment 

  6. Problem solver: Divorce mediator is skilled in working through differences towards a mutually beneficial solution for all involved stakeholders

Beginning The Private Divorce Mediation Process

Your private divorce mediation process typically begins with a mediation consultation at no charge. This consultation is an opportunity for your family to learn more about the mediation process as well as the divorce mediator you may choose to move forward with. In addition, this consultation will allow me to gain an understanding of your family’s concerns and gain an overview of your family’s financial and legal situation. 

During the consultation, you will receive answers to the questions you may have about both the mediation and the divorce process. If you choose to take your consultation with me, I will also provide you with a list of documents to prepare. This consultation will help build the foundation for your family as well as myself to ensure efficiency and effectiveness when we embark on your family’s mediation process. 

Why Divorce Mediation Instead of Traditional Litigated Divorce?

On one hand, the traditional litigated divorce process include attorneys are hired on an hourly basis to go to court, execute the discovery phase, file court documents, as well as hire any relevant experts. On the other hand, the divorce mediation process has a single mediator doing the heavy lifting and coordinating experts such as appraisers or accountants only when necessary.

Compared to traditional litigated divorce, divorce mediation is much more economical and will come up to approximately 10%-20% of traditional litigated divorce. This is because divorce mediation focuses on cooperation, and cases are typically settled outside of court. By doing so, the divorce reaches fruition without any court appearances. Hence, attorney services can be used to complement divorce mediation on an as needed basis should you require legal advice.  

Benefits Of Working With Attorneys

While some couples feel like they have a good grasp of the divorce process, others choose to have attorneys represent them from start to finish. There are perks of doing so, as attorneys can directly advise you on any specific legal matters. Hence, on occasion, it is recommended to engage consulting attorneys should you wish to gain a deeper legal understanding of the divorce process. However, if preserving your finances are of top priority, it is more economical to engage an attorney should the need arise. For instance, each party could have their respective attorney review the proposed settlement agreement prior to signing. 

Next Steps

While the divorce process can be emotionally and physically taxing, you can make this process smoother through proper preparation and engaging a seasoned divorce mediator. Ultimately, divorce mediators, such as I, are here to help you during this trying time. I sincerely hope that this article proved educational for kicking off your journey. 

Biography


Leyla Balakhane is a distinguished and experienced mediator, facilitator, coach, and trainer who specializes in highly-charged divorce and family mediation. Leyla is a passionate mediator who has always felt drawn to help others navigate conflicts and advocate for children who will inevitably shape our society.

Every child deserves to have a happy, safe and loving home environment and Leyla is committed to helping make that a reality.

Leyla is a member of the Los Angeles County Bar Association (LACBA) Arbitration Panel, a Certified Practitioner of the Academy of Professional Family Mediators (APFM), and trains of a wide range of range of professionals in the field of family law mediation in SCMA’s Professional Development Group for Family Law by the Southern California Mediation Association. Leyla’s extensive experience as a mediator is not only utilized with families, but has also prepared her to provide training in mediation at various universities and professional organizations. She is an expert in the field of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR), and her approach to divorce is effective, compassionate, and economical.



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