As we continue to grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic and its grip on our nation, couples facing divorce have hit a road block as many family courts have been closed during the lockdown.
While Texas family courts are just beginning to open up electronically, cases in the queue are backing up rapidly. In addition, family law firms and staffs are still scrambling to stay operational during the “new normal.” Grappling with social distancing in their offices, some staff members work remotely from home, while others install and learn to use online applications in order to “meet online” with prospects and clients.
So, at the moment, traditional divorce litigation is not only costly, time-consuming and heart wrenching, the added burden of pandemic restrictions is further complicating and slowing the divorce process down to a crawl.
Increasingly, couples seeking divorce are turning to streamlined alternatives to the traditional divorce litigation model in order to get their divorces under way. One alternative approach getting attention is Early Intervention Mediation.
Those considering divorce may not realize that in the greater Houston area, especially in Harris County, the courts already require couples to participate in at least one mediation session before their divorce can proceed to court. This is because the family courts are overloaded with cases (in a normal year) and mediation has proven to significantly reduce the number of divorces that end up in court. Yet, this mediation session, in the typical litigation scenario, doesn’t occur until the final weeks of a divorce case.
Early Intervention Mediation is a viable option now because couples start with mediation at the front end of the divorce process.
This specific type of mediation offers a proven, streamlined model so couples can get divorce negotiations under way immediately. Essentially, all it requires initially is that one spouse or both retain a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst (CDFA) to help the couple work out the overall settlement issues, and an attorney/mediator to draft the Mediated Settlement Agreement and answer any legal questions.
In most cases, the CDFA/mediator will guide spouses through the process, enabling them to make the best of an already difficult emotional experience. Early Intervention Mediation allows couples to engage in a more collaborative outcome as they develop divorce process ground rules and cohesive parenting plans without dueling attorneys, long timelines and steep legal fees. During COVID-19 restrictions, this confidential process can easily take place through the online application Zoom, or in private conference rooms where participants use masks and practice social distancing.
Once a Mediated Settlement Agreement has been created and agreed upon, it is then submitted to an attorney who will draft the final decree. After the parties review and sign the final decree, the attorney will “prove it up” in court. This is the only “court appearance” required. However, during the COVID-19 pandemic, which find most family courts closed, this can be done by electronic-signatures.
Even during “normal” times, Early Intervention Mediation is gaining in popularity as an efficient, inexpensive, more controlled way to proceed through the divorce process without facing financial ruin.
The average litigated divorce can cost many thousands of dollars, depleting a family’s finances. With the help of neutral third parties, in this case, a CDFA and an Attorney/Mediator, you can resolve property and custody disputes from a legal perspective while creating a comprehensive agreement that works for both parties. It also avoids getting in that long line at the court house for a date with a judge.
For more information on the latest from Harris County Courts on the divorce process and pandemic restrictions, visit:
How to “prove up” a mediated settlement agreement:
Harris County Family District Courts’ First Amended Policies and Procedures during COVID-19