Professional mediators can help speed up and smooth the process of reaching a divorce settlement agreement. Mediators act as neutral third parties, working with couples to help them reach agreements about how to divide assets, arrange for child support or alimony payments, and devise a child custody schedule, if necessary. (Some of these choices are dictated clearly by state law, while others can be decided by the divorcing couple.) Mediators—who in some cases are also attorneys—sometimes meet with couples together, but more often they meet separately with each person and act as a go-between while the agreement is taking shape. The number of hours of a mediator’s time required varies, depending on how many issues the couple needs to work through to create their mediated divorce settlement agreement. Some private mediators charge by the hour. Typical rates are $100–$300 an hour. Other mediators charge set full- and half-day rates. Brenna Loyd, an attorney and partner with Johnson, Loyd & Schmitz in Fort Worth, Texas, says $300–$700 is a typical cost range for a half-day of mediation in her area. A full day’s mediation could range from $500–$1,200.
Courts in most states and counties almost always try to avoid letting a divorce go to trial. Divorce trials can be lengthy, acrimonious and stressful for everyone involved. In addition, only one person wins in a court trial, so the result can end in dissatisfaction for the person who loses. That’s why it’s common for judges to order that a couple use mediation to reach a settlement agreement, especially in a contested divorce. (For more on what’s involved in filing for divorce, see How to File for Divorce in 8 Easy Steps.
Most counties employ mediators, which may be a more affordable option if a couple can’t afford a private mediator. The challenge, says Loyd, is that a government-employed mediator may not specialize in family law and, as a result, may not have experience with divorce settlements. Loyd says hiring a mediator recommended by a divorce attorney is a good way to go because lawyers will recommend someone who will be a good fit for the case.
Although it’s possible to file for divorce without an attorney or to file solely with the help of a mediator, it’s smarter to have an attorney look over the mediated settlement agreement before filing it with the court. Loyd with Johnson, Loyd & Schmitz has seen judges reject agreements that did not follow state laws regarding the division of property or custody of children. A rejection ultimately costs the couple more in lawyer’s fees to correct the agreement. A mediator is not qualified to provide legal advice. Even if a mediator helps draft a settlement agreement, both parties’ lawyers will need to finalize the agreement and ensure that the parties approve before filing it with the court. When the divorce agreement is signed by both parties in the presence of their lawyers, it’s almost—but not quite—final. The lawyer for the party who initiated the divorce will file the papers with the court. Next, the state may require a "prove-up" hearing, at which one or both parties are required to appear again and sign the agreement, making it final by law.
How long it takes to reach a divorce settlement with help from a mediator and attorneys varies widely depending on the factors involved. In Texas, says Loyd of Johnson, Loyd & Schmitz, the fastest possible divorce can go through in 60 days. However, most divorces take longer—five or six months on average. Loyd says many couples can work out a divorce settlement agreement that they’re both happy with using a mediator for a half day. If there are multiple issues, such as child custody and support or if property division is more complicated, the process may require a full day of the mediator’s time.