This is part 3 of a 7 part interview with Massachusetts divorce mediator Tracy Fischer acknowledging that divorce can be challenging for women, our panel of experts offers practical tips on navigating financial concerns, keeping emotions in check and rediscovering themselves. Watch the entire Navigating Divorce interview video.
Jenine G.: So, mediation seems to be getting more and more popular of the process. Why do you think it is getting more popular?
Tracy Fischer: I think that the judges and attorneys have realized that the court system is just not a place to deal with families in conflict. The court systems are clogged. The wait for a trial date is a year. There isn’t enough money in most states to pay for the volume of people that are now getting divorced. So, I think everybody in that whole system has realized that it’s better for people to make some decisions on their own, outside of the court, if they can.
Jenine G.: Lori-you decided to go to mediation.
Lori Hubbard: I did. What was great about working with Tracy, she helped myself and my ex-husband come fully prepared for what we were getting into. She set realistic expectations for us. It’s very easy to focus on the emotions, put the blinders on. All we wanted to do was get it done, but Tracy reined us in. There was a moment where … We were actually very nice to each other. There was no fighting over assets. We just wanted it done.
Jenine G.: A lot of people say they’re nicer to each other when they’re getting a divorce and post divorce-
Lori Hubbard: It was kind of crazy, yeah. We were actually agreeing on things, and just splitting things up. But Tracy actually had to rein us in at one point and say, “Okay, well now, things need to be fair, actually. There needs to be a fair split, otherwise it’s going to get hung up in court, and it’s actually going to prolong the divorce process, which is what we absolutely didn’t want.” So, Tracy was great about talking to both of us and keeping us on track with what we wanted.
Jenine G.: Tracy, walk us through the mediation process, what does it look like?
Tracy Fischer: As an overview, it’s a structured, time limited process where two people who know most about their situation are helped to talk about it together with a neutral, trained professional, a mediator. The process is very simple and structured and that reduces anxiety if you know what’s happening next. Everything is done in mind to reduce the conflict. Every decision that’s made, every time we’re discussing something, it’s really to reduce the conflict and enable the couple have room to agree. I usually ask people to come in with financial statements prepared, which is a listing of income, assets, debts and expenses. We use that as a tool to help figure out the finances. When a couple comes in for the first meeting, the first thing we talk about is the parenting plan. And we do that because we want to be focused on your children. That’s really the most important thing about the mediation is figuring out what happens with the kids.
Tracy Fischer: If you don’t have children, we go right into the financial statements, going over them in detail, making sure both people really understand the finances. Once everything is completed and all the numbers are there and there is complete financial disclosure, then we start talking about the finances, what decisions need to be made. We don’t go into any of that until we really know what’s there in terms of who wants to live where, what about the house. We cover everything that needs to be included in a comprehensive divorce agreement.
Jenine G.: It’s interesting, the first time I got divorced, there was a child involved, our son, I went through a divorce attorney. Second time was mediation. But you made a comment before about mediation, people can go through and try it, and then if that doesn’t work, flip to a divorce attorney but it’s harder.
Tracy Fischer: It’s harder to go back the other way from the adversarial process to mediation. … That’s exactly right. You really have nothing to lose by trying mediation. The reality is, you’re getting some financial information, you’re just getting information. There’s no point in the mediation where anybody is forced to make a decision. You have time to think about it in between. People can hear what the other person has to say, talk about it. They may get some things accomplished, not everything and say, “You know what, there’s one thing we can’t agree on. I’m sorry, I’m going to have to get an attorney.” And you really have gained a lot throughout the process with that knowledge, so you can then switch to an attorney. It’s harder to go the other way.
Jenine G.: To go the other way. I think that’s great advice. To prepare for the first meeting now that you have your team assembled, what are some of the things, Tracy, when someone walks in, you look for, that you want to go over?
Tracy Fischer: As I said before, I ask people to come in prepared with those financial statements. The reason I do that is really to streamline the process, to make it more efficient. Everybody is busy. It’s hard to get three people in the same room when people come in for that first meeting. I want to have something to work on. Those financial statements, it can be a listing, it can be your own listing, it could be a form. In Massachusetts, it’s called a financial statement. Online, through different states court systems, anybody can go online and find these financial forums. It’s truly essential to the mediation that there be full financial transparency, so that even if someone forgets to put something on the financial statement or one person may say, “Oh, I thought we had that account, it’s not listed on your financial statement,” that is a conversation so that it is complete and finished by the time we’re done.
Tracy Fischer: Usually people come in with a draft of the financial statement, it’s not complete, but it’s a work in progress. It is really important to have trust, but sometimes people don’t, they’re getting divorce. What I usually tell clients is that if you’re concerned about something, if you’re concerned that a bank account is missing, you don’t understand why an account is this value, we talk about it and we figure out, what do we need so that both people feel comfortable with the numbers? Do we need bank statements? Do we need a credit card statements? And then we talk about how to address these issues that may simply be a lack of knowledge. I also think that one thing that’s important to be prepared about is the kids, how much do they know about the process, do they know their parents are getting divorced. If they don’t know yet, I usually suggest that people wait until they know where they’re going to live, what the parenting plan is going to be like, before they let their kids know.
Tracy Fischer: Other times children just intuitively know, and then it’s important to keep them in the loop and tell them that both parents love them. They’re going to be with both parents. Nothing is really going to change in their life, and mom and dad are figuring it out.