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A Happy Medium

by Stephanie Twining

Mediation can help divorcing couples maintain a level of civility.

When divorce becomes a reality in a relationship, many couples brace themselves for the worst: A lengthy, bitter battle that only results in further anger and confusion for all parties involved. In the last decade, however, many people in South Jersey have been turning to mediation as an alternative option for settling their divorce matters in hopes of a more desirable resolution.

The process—where both husband and wife meet with a neutral mediator to help them resolve differences and agree on a settlement, whether that involves financial issues or child custody decisions—can bring forth several advantages, including the ultimate goal of having both individuals accept the agreement and maintain an amicable relationship once the divorce is finalized.

“The most positive thing that comes out of mediation is retaining a relationship after the dispute is resolved, particularly for couples with children,” says Howard S. Mendelson, managing partner at Davis & Mendelson in Voorhees. “To have the kind of relationship where they can sit at the same table at the wedding and all those things, and not have two separate lives because of what litigation often does to people.”

In litigation, each individual has an attorney conduct the bulk of the negotiations, which can make the process take on a different feel. “It is much easier to maintain a relationship when you’re not in the context of litigation, or needing to win, if you will,” Mendelson says.

“In this situation, I serve as a problem-solving peacemaker rather than as a litigation attorney with the objective of winning. After doing that for 20-some years, it was apparent to me that because of the desirability of people maintaining a relationship after the divorce, mediation is particularly a positive way to go.”

According to Judge Joseph P. Testa (Ret) of Adinolfi & Goldstein in Haddonfield, approximately 80 percent of clients that go to mediation are able to successfully resolve their differences and come to a settlement that, in some cases, is more agreeable to them than one the courts might hand down.

“There are no happy people walking out of a courtroom,” Testa says. “No judge can possibly resolve the differences between two parties better than they can resolve them themselves.”

Oftentimes, couples can find solutions through mediation that might not be allowed by a judge, who is more strictly regulated by the court system.

“Unless there’s some really unusual reason to keep a house, in most divorce cases if the parties can’t agree what happens to the house, a judge has to order that it gets sold,” says Christopher Musulin of Musulin Law Firm in Mount Holly. “If you mediate, you can work things out differently—maybe give one spouse a longer period of time to buy out the interest of the other. You have greater flexibility.”

Musulin adds that another flexible aspect of mediation is the schedule, which is arranged at the individuals’ own pace and convenience, rather than the regimented court schedule. While mediation is often a way to minimize the level of emotional distress involved in divorce proceeding, it should not be expected to lessen the sting altogether, warns Bill Thompson, partner and chair of the family law and matrimonial department at Archer & Greiner in Haddonfield.

“It works in those cases where people are able to sit down with each other and rationally discuss the issues,” Thompson says. “That does not mean that mediation is unemotional or easy.”

There is little doubt that mediation can reduce the cost of a divorce, which has also led to its increased popularity in recent years. “The day that people could go to a lawyer, work through a contested divorce and walk out with a $5,000 fee is long since past,” Thompson says. “When you’re sitting down and looking at litigation costs that can run into tens of thousands of dollars, many people—especially with the current economy—can’t afford that.”

Rarely will a mediator discourage individuals from consulting an attorney during the process, however. Especially once an agreement is reached, each person typically takes the mediator’s memorandum to a lawyer who can ensure that their rights and needs are being fairly met.

Richard C. Klein, partner and chair of the family law department at Becker Meisel in Cherry Hill, often finds it helpful for each party to have an attorney to consult throughout the mediation process, not simply at the end.

“It’s very important that they each have counsel with whom they can ask questions, as it’s not the mediator’s job to explain the law to them, but rather simply to get them to agree,” Klein says.

Some people looking for a quick settlement will forego this opportunity, which can result in a decision that heavily favors one side over the other. This problem is something many concede to be a major pitfall of mediation as an alternative to litigation.

Another issue can be situations where one spouse is more knowledgeable about the family’s finances or has a more dominant personality. Without the investigations and release of information to the public that often occurs in divorces handled by the court, it is possible for one person to take advantage of the other or even withhold financial information.

Judith S. Charny, partner at Charny, Charny & Karpousis in Mount Laurel, agrees that the issue of trust can often be a hurdle in divorce cases.

“Mediation only works if there is full disclosure and trust, so considering the fact that people are getting divorced, that’s not always the case,” Charny says. “People have to rise above their emotions and for most people that’s very difficult.”

A Special Advertising Section from the pages of South Jersey Magazine

Law Library

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Adinolfi & Goldstein, P.A.

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Archer & Greiner, P.C.
Archer & Greiner, P.C., is a full-service law firm with more than 170 lawyers serving Fortune 100 clients, small to medium-sized businesses and individuals for more than 80 years. The firm has offices in Haddonfield, Princeton, Flemington, N.J., Philadelphia, Pa., New York, N.Y., Wilmington and Georgetown, Del.
Haddonfield | (856) 795-2121

Becker Meisel, LLC
Richard C. Klein, Esquire, is a nationally recognized Family Law Attorney that handles a full range of legal services for individuals facing divorce or separation and custody. Aggressively pursuing all means, including negotiation and litigation, for the best interests of our clients. Visit our website for more information.
Cherry Hill | (856) 779-0700

Charny, Charny & Karpousis, P.A.
Led by Judy S. Charny, the Divorce and Family Law Group of Charny, Charny & Karpousis, P.A. is dedicated to providing high quality legal services. This team of seven female attorneys includes highly recognized leaders in the field with 60+ years of experience and an unparalleled compassion for clients.
Mount Laurel | (856) 505-1700

Davis & Mendelson, L.L.C.
Mediation provides separating/divorcing parties with a cost-effective and child-centered way to resolve their differences. The parties focus on their commonality of interests and needs, rather than ego-driven positions; they resolve issues involving their children and property without either party having to “prevail” against the other.
Voorhees | (856) 627-0100

Musulin Law Firm, LLC
Christopher Musulin, Esquire, is a Divorce and Family Law Attorney, as well as a Divorce Mediator and Arbitrator. Mr. Musulin serves clients throughout South Jersey and will apprise you of your rights. Call today to schedule a consultation or visit our website for more information.
Mount Holly | (609) 267-0070

Michael J. Stein, Attorney At Law
A full-service divorce and family law firm serving clients throughout Southern New Jersey. The firm’s experience, personal attention and listening skills combine to meet your legal needs.
Moorestown | (856) 642-0400

Joseph M Weinberg & Associates, P.A.
Should I settle or litigate? Mediation offers a fair and equitable alternative to this question. Although there is no clear answer, analyze all factors with your head and not your heart.
Haddonfield | (856) 795-9400

The Law Office Of Stephen J. Wenger
A U.S. Navy veteran who primarily handles military and veterans law. Mr. Wenger can provide assistance if you have been denied your benefits by the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Burlington | (609) 387-3649

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Magazine, Volume 8, Issue 1 (April, 2011).
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