In my last blog post, I told the story of Elizabeth and James, with their permission. James wanted to modify their settlement agreement five years after their divorce since their daughter had just turned eighteen. In Virginia, once a child turns eighteen and has graduated from high school, there is no child support obligation. They have another child, a son who is fourteen. James retained a lawyer and informed Elizabeth how things were going to be amended. Elizabeth felt stressed and upset. During their marriage, James was the unilateral decision maker. She had not liked his failure to consider her input during the marriage, and she did not like his lack of considering her opinion now. The couple had been divorced for five years, and Elizabeth did not want to fall back into old communication patterns, She wanted to have a collaborative, and not an adversarial, approach to working through these post divorce issues.
Elizabeth retained a lawyer as well to level the playing field, but she had no interest in paying $400 per hour to her divorce attorney, as much as she liked her. Instead, I helped Elizabeth and James in drafting a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that set forth and clarified their intentions. Elizabeth and James agreed that (1) they both want to share expenses 50/50, no matter what their incomes are; and (2) they both want to continue contributing to their children's 529 accounts until their children finish college so that there is money for graduate school. What they disagreed about was how to share expenses 50/50.
The MOU stated in pertinent part that Elizabeth would continue to carry the children on her health insurance policy as long as the insurance was reasonably priced, that Elizabeth and James would equally share all of the children's expenses -- such as cell phones, sports, extracurricular activities, car insurance, and health insurance -- until they were able to gradually take on the responsibility of paying for their own expenses, and that there would be an annual reconciliation of all previously agreed-to expenses over $100.
The real issue here was how to move Elizabeth and James from old communication patterns -- where moving toward agreement was stalled -- to new ways of talking to each other with a neutral mediator so that agreement could be reached. Mediation works!
Ellice Halpern, J.D., is a Virginia Supreme Court certified general and family mediator.