Most divorces are difficult, messy, painful situations that can turn once friends and lovers into archenemies, and leaves those in its wake, struggling to navigate through the wreckage. But mediation is one way to make divorce less messy, less difficult, and, well, less painful.
“Getting divorced doesn’t necessarily take two lawyers arguing for each side,” says divorce attorney Eric Braaten, who has recommended mediation to some of his clients. “Mediators are really good at being completely neutral and figuring out solutions, and in these economic times, mediation is a great option because it is a fraction of the cost of a traditional divorce.”
When Joe Yost, and his former wife, Emily, made the painful decision to divorce, they ended their marriage with the help of Jeff Johnson, owner of Johnson Mediation in Chanhassen. “The mediation process provided us a non-intimidating solution during our difficult time,” Yost says. “The greatest benefit of mediation, I felt, was its fairness based on financial facts, current and future needs, and both parties ability for open dialogue. It was also extremely cost effective and took less than a handful of hours with the mediator to mutually agree on a final outcome.”
As a guy who holds a bachelor’s degree in Psychology, and worked as a corporate mediator for 25 years with the likes of Target and Best Buy, Johnson knows a thing or two about negotiating—and how people think.
Now he uses all his skills and education, along with lessons learned from his own divorce after 24 years of marriage, to help him guide more than 300 couples through the process of divorce. “Through my own divorce, I learned that the process is terrible,” Johnson says. “It is adversarial and shouldn’t be the way two people get out of a marriage.”
So Johnson offers another way. He changes the approach from the typical positional-based bargaining, most often found with attorneys and in the court system, to interest-based bargaining, which allows each party to weigh in on what they want and together they build a plan that works for both parties. “We start in the middle,” says Jeff. “We determine what would be fair and equitable and build from there, instead of the other way around.”
The process is relatively straightforward. There is a free one-hour initial consultation where both parties can ask questions and are given an intake form to fill out if they are going to move forward. If so, they hire Johnson and pay him a $500 case fee (significantly less than attorney retainer fees), and schedule three to four two-hour sessions.
The first session is a “gathering of facts,” Johnson says. “We project financial software up on a screen and begin to populate the spread sheet.” In between first and second sessions, Johnson begins working on the Memorandum of Agreement, a document that will lay out every detail of what the parties agree to.
The second session is all about the financials. “We look at everything from assets and liabilities to kids’ expenses to if they have enough money to live independently,” Johnson says.
And, at the third session, a parenting plan is drawn up.
“All of the things that can cause future conflict, we try to resolve in the moment so issues don’t come up later,” Johnson says. “My whole goal is to never have to see them again because everything was addressed in the Memorandum of Agreement.”
At any given time if either of the parties feel they would like legal advice, they are free to do so. That said, Johnson encourages them to keep their cost down, so instead of having the attorney’s with them during the sessions and have to pay a two-hour fee, have them answer specific questions outside of sessions and the parties then bring the information with them; in Johnson’s words, “pay for what you need.” Once all matters are addressed, couples can choose to file the legal documents themselves, or have an attorney do it.
Sometimes there needs to be four or five sessions to get everything all squared away, if, say, the level of conflict is high, or there are any complexities within the marital estate. But that’s okay, says Johnson. “That’s what I do; I know how to help get past those sticky points and make sure each party is satisfied with the result.”