Carol A. Butler, Ph.D., is Co-author of THE DIVORCE MEDIATION ANSWER BOOK. She is a mediator and psychotherapist in private practice, Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Applied Psychology at New York University, and a member of the Academy of Family Mediators. She was interviewed for Divorce Central by Terry Hillman, co-author of THE COMPLETE IDIOT'S GUIDE TO SURIVIVING DIVORCE.
Moderator: Good evening, and welcome to Divorce Central's Expert Online show. Dr. Carol A. Butler, experienced mediator is our guest tonight. Her topic tonight is "Recipe for a Good Divorce Settlement." Welcome Carol. Can you just briefly introduce yourself, tell a little about your background and about your new book, "The Divorce Mediation Answer Book?"
Butler:Thanks for having me on your site- I've been looking forward to the interview.
Moderator:We're happy to have you.
Butler:My background is as a psychotherapist--with adults and couples. I'm a clinical supervisor of graduate students at NYU as well, and I do a lot of work with sexual problems. I heard about divorce mediation a few years ago and it seemed to be a natural extension of what I've been doing
"The Divorce Mediation Answer Book," which I wrote with Dolores Walker, tries to answer all the questions we could think of about divorce and mediation.
It includes a section about unmarried couples, gay and lesbian issues, and a resource section with a list of qualified mediators all over the US.
Moderator:Well, tonight we're going to focus on constructing a working divorce settlement, which can be either achieved through mediation or through the spouses and their respective attorneys.
A lot of concrete issues must be put into a divorce settlement, but when people are divorcing it's not always easy to arrive at a settlement or to compromise on these issues.
Before we get into the specifics, are there any intangible things necessary for a settlement to be reached, ie, is the degree of animosity important? Can a settlement even be attempted if there is a lot of animosity?
Butler:It is important that the couple be able to sit in the same room and talk about the issues. There are some court-ordered mediation programs that provide special arrangements for couples where there is a lot of animosity or potential violence, but we can't do that in private mediation. You need to be able to negotiate on your own behalf, with the support of the mediator, and without being afraid of consequences when you leave the session. This is an important requirement.
Moderator:What are the elements that must be included in a settlement agreement?
Butler:If there are children, you will need to develop a parenting plan--child support is determined according to state guidelines. These are minimums that you use as your starting point. Extras such as education, child care, medical care, orthodenture, etc. are negotiated separately. A visitation plan needs to be worked out so that each parent has ample time with the children. Who has legal custody--that is, decision-making authority--needs to be decided as well. Then there is the issue of the assets that have been accumulated during the marriage--savings, collectibles, pets, frequent flyer miles, your home--we help you decide who gets what and what trade-offs make the final settlement workable. Other assets are pensions--retirement savings, grandparents' visitation, summer camp--I'm just free associating, but of course, each couple has special issues.
Moderator:Of course, each situation is different. Now, Carol, can you help us with ways to make the negotiations less painful and more expedient? Let's take the important issues one by one. To make my question a little clearer, are there approaches that can "cut to the chase," to avoid a dragged out negotiation period?
Butler:Here's an example, a big problem in New York, where I practice, is who gets the house--the condo, the rent stabilized loft? Often, the couple bought the home at a much lower price than its current worth, and both parties are often attached to their home--it's a very emotional issue as to who should move out.
Moderator:How would you approach solving a dispute on this issue?
Butler:I'd try to have both parties really explore their reasons for wanting to stay in the house and try to help them come to terms with the idea that someone has to give, and what would make it interesting for them to consider the possibility of moving. Also, I might remind them that if they can't resolve their issues by negotiating and end up in court, the relinquish their right to make the decision and will spend a lot of money which they could be using to make some positive changes.
Moderator:What if one party is particularly attached to the house?
Butler:Then the question is what would it take to persuade the other party to leave? Is there some inducement that would make it easier to consider... if there is something to trade off, in addition to a financial resolution of the house--buying the partner out in some way, there might be some other inducement to overcome the emotional obstacles. For example, the use of a country house for a set period of time before it is sold or transferred, or more than an equal share of some other asset.
Moderator:The name of the game, then, is "compromise."
Butler:That ultimately is correct.
Moderator:But it is hard to compromise if you're angry. Is there a cooling off period that might help?
Butler:Yes it is hard to compromise if you're angry, but a skilled mediator can help vent some of the anger and help the couple focus on the future. It certainly is easier to mediate divorces when the couple has been separated for a while.
Moderator:What do you mean by "a while"?
Butler:It depends, of course, but we often see couples who have been separated for years before they are ready to tackle the divorce--and often that goes rather smoothly. Sometimes just a few months is enough to adjust to the idea that a settlement has to be made.
Moderator:How should each person prepare for the negotiations? I'm assuming that they must take stock of their own financial position.
Butler:They should think beforehand about what is really important to them, and they should also gather together all the information...I mean their own financial positions, their spouse's, and the marital assets--what are things worth? The more you know, the easier it is to negotiate.
Moderator:If they have children, I suppose they must come to terms with the fact that they will have to share parenting time, correct?
Butler:Generally that's true.
Moderator:That is a hard concept to come to terms with for any parent.
Butler:Both parents are entitled to spend time with the children, and even where there have been problems, there are ways the visits can be supervised. It's extremely rare that a parent is denied visitation.
Moderator:Now we have time for questions.
Jessica:Carol...I was the one who moved out of the home and was told it was a bad decision on my part and was told it will be harder for me to try to go back home again. Since, I moved out April, 98...is this true?
Butler:It's hard to say. If you both own the home it is still marital property, and its disposition must be negotiated.
Jane:We are in the early stages of filing for divorce and my husband is talking about a no contest divorce and shared parenting, what are the pros and cons of this, and do we need a mediator?
Butler:No contest divorces are quite common.
Moderator:Of course, parenting is always "shared."
Butler:This means that no one has to be blamed for the divorce--it's just by mutual consent or by establishing a period of time of formal (legal) separation. In most states, the grounds for the divorce do not affect the settlement, and a no contest divorce is often much easier for future relationships when there are children.
Danielle:About the shared parenting, he wants 50/50 with no child support; however, our son will probably be with me most of the time at first. Is this right?
Butler:Child support is required, even thought the child is with both parents. Each parent's share is calculated and balanced against the time the child spends with each parent The support is adjusted by the common sense support that the parent provides when taking care of the child- food, transportation, etc. All this is worked out in mediation so that both parents pay their fair share.
Moderator:And there are guidelines in each state, aren't there? By the way, each states laws can be found in Divorce Central's Laws by State, accessed from the home page at http://www.divorcecentral.com.
Butler:Yes, there are guidelines in each state and they differ from state to state.
Maryann:If I have a divorce decree and settlement already filed and completed, and ex hubby does not submit me copies of bills or give access to daughter's college dept, what are my next options?
Butler:All you can do is try to keep focused on making a settlement. The settlement document is a legal contract and you are both bound by it. If he doesn't do what he agrees to do, you can return to mediation or take him to court.
Helen:Carol, our assets are considerable. Filed in NJ 7/99. Have reason to believe he took funds from business in Fl and invested in online trading and e-business. How do I negotiate with this kind of deception?
Butler:If there's no trust it's difficult to settle under any circumstances.
Helen:But a settlement has to be worked out? What do you suggest as an approach?
Butler:It's worth a try to do it in mediation, and in any situation you can require as much information as possible. A forensic accountant, for example, can analyze your lifestyle and figure out approximately how much must be coming into pay for it. This is done in a cash business where there is a dispute about income.
Helen:Do I forfeit my right to discovery of information?
Butler:Not at all.
David:How much will a forensic accountant cost? And who would pay for it?
Butler:Who would pay for the forensic accountant is open to discussion in the negotiations. The cost varies, depending on the extent of the report you require.
George:I'm from Louisiana We are trying mediation because I have asked for increase in visitation. She has refused to go, but was court ordered to exhaust all other avenues before the judge will hear the case. My Ex has been very uncooperative to the point of vindictive, using our two sons. We have been divorced for 4 years and she has been remarried for 3 of those years. Do you find that mediation can help to get a more cooperative arrangement?
Moderator:I sometimes am asked to mediate in these situations, and yes, it can be helpful.
Dolores:Carol, are there professionals who have expertise in finding assets on the Internet?
Butler:There are several sites that list professionals of all sorts who can help in these matters.
Moderator:Yes, they do exist. You'll have to do a search.
Butler:Divorce Magazine is another good resource.
Michaela:He moved out a little over a month ago and yesterday he wanted money for bills from the previous month (1/2 of all of them), however our son has been with me the whole time, should I ask for child support for the last month and a half and should I keep track of all money I give him?.
Butler:You should keep track of all money you give him, and there should be a formal procedure for settling up each month. It should be written into your settlement.
Barry:Where can Carol be reached for private consultations?
Butler:I'm in Manhattan, and I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jerry:Are there any keys points that are overlooked in settlements?
Butler:Each settlement varies, and the mediator should see that everything is covered.
Butler:Thanks for the question, Dennis. It's available online and in the bookstores.
Moderator:Thank you, Carol for joining us tonight. Carol's book is "The Divorce Mediation Answer Book." Our next Expert Online show is two weeks from tonight. The topic is "How your financial settlement today will affect you tomorrow." Financial Planner Ted Beecher will be our guest. Please join us then. Sign the Divorce Central mailing list to find out more.
The New Dawn Cafe is open for socializing.
Divorce Central is not responsible for the accuracy of information provided by guests interviewed on "Expert Online."