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Alternative Dispute Resolution in Family Law: Exploring Collaborative Law and Mediation

Alternative Dispute Resolution in Family Law

Family law cases can be complicated and complex. Disagreements between separating couples can naturally be stressful, unpleasant, and exhausting. Spouses who must litigate their issues in court during emotionally taxing life changes may spend unexpected amounts of time in the courtroom in addition to paying extensive costs for attorney and court fees. Fortunately, there are multiple alternatives to litigation for family law cases.

The team of qualified family law attorneys at Desert Legal Group will work diligently to secure you a favorable result in your family law case, no matter how difficult the circumstances may seem. We pride ourselves on offering attentive and personalized representation for each client and guiding them through every step of their case. This is true whether you choose alternative dispute resolution or litigation.

Alternative Dispute Resolution in Family Law

Alternative dispute resolution (ADR) is a legal approach that allows those who don’t wish to take their matters to court to be able to resolve their issues via alternative, more collaborative options. There are several reasons one or both parties within a civil dispute may want to proceed with a dispute resolution method other than litigation in the courtroom. As a result, ADR is a wise choice for many Arizona residents facing a civil case.

In family law disputes, many couples and families are looking to change their family dynamic. With so many people and potentially emotional situations involved, a more collaborative course of action can be appealing. From preserving relationships that are in good standing, saving time spent using and paying for court resources to a flexible process with customized results, it’s no wonder alternative dispute resolution methods often leave clients more satisfied.

What Is Dispute Resolution in Family Law?

Dispute or conflict resolution within family law typically refers to the cases where separating couples or non-committed parents must address relevant topics for the approval of the family court. Applicable areas include components of divorce and parenting plans, especially child support, parenting time, property division, and alimony. Modification and enforcement of previous court orders, in addition to prenuptial or postnuptial agreements, are also included.

These matters require addressing because significant legal changes to a family dynamic’s status quo are occurring, and the court must approve them before issuing a final court order. How these changes will be handled influences multiple factors, such as finances and residence, and the future of lives that are likely dependent on one another. Due to this, couples often disagree on how more than one aspect of a divorce or parenting should be managed, especially since their differing ideologies potentially played a part in their separation.

This is why family law issues are commonly addressed within a court of law under a judge who ultimately decides all arrangements based on the circumstances. This is known as litigation. However, not all spouses staunchly disagree on every topic, and many don’t want drawn-out and turbulent court proceedings. Many of these individuals consider a course of action besides litigation, known as an alternative dispute resolution.

Types of Alternative Dispute Resolution

Types of Alternative Dispute Resolution

ADR options can be extremely beneficial for parties who are amicable or willing enough to resolve their issues without debating them in court. There are a few different options depending on a couple’s needs, capabilities, resources, preferences, and other factors. If you’re uncertain or have questions regarding the wisest course of action in your case, you can always consult with our family lawyers.

Family Law Mediation

Divorce and other family affairs typically evoke images of heated litigation within a courtroom setting. However, many people also picture divorce mediation, which is a form of alternative dispute resolution. The goal of the mediation process is for both individuals and their respective attorneys to meet and reach a mutually beneficial and balanced agreement. All activity is conducted with a qualified neutral third party, known as a mediator, present.

The mediator does not have to be an attorney, but attorneys frequently provide this service. Their neutral position prevents them from giving legal counsel but instead promotes problem-solving, honesty, and potential solutions that could benefit both parties. Upon reaching a settlement, the mediator drafts a legally sound and binding agreement that each spouse signs; the terms of the agreement go into effect once the document is approved by a judge.

Mediation is a viable option for couples with a relatively simple or uncomplicated divorce, such as when the spouses are on good terms, have no children and/or little property, or were not married for very long. Mediation proceedings are collaborative in nature and fully confidential, avoiding the possibly adversarial environment of the court. Participants are able to discuss their wants, motivations, and contentions at length and with immediate response. Additionally, there is more opportunity for personal control and the tailoring of terms or decisions, including those that may not be afforded in a court case.

Mediation is generally much quicker than litigation and thus may reduce court and attorney fees. This type of alternative dispute resolution works best when both parties are truly committed to the process, which entails a level of willingness to compromise and negotiate. Some conflict is always expected, but ideally, the mediator can effectively reframe issues and offer unconsidered resolutions to issues. It’s unlikely to get everything you want during mediation, and it’s important to recognize that stubbornness and an adversarial demeanor may elongate the overall process.

Collaborative Law

Perhaps you’ve heard of divorcing couples working collaboratively but thought of mediation since it is more collaborative than divorce litigation. If you’re unfamiliar with the subject or have never heard of a collaborative divorce or collaborative law, you may be wondering: “What is collaborative law in conflict resolution?”

Under Arizona statutes, all parties are allowed access to collaborative law proceedings regarding joint matters or issues, such as divorce and other areas within family law, upon signing a written participation agreement. Resolutions and decisions reached during collaborative law negotiations require and are a result of independent lawyers representing each party and with no intervention from a tribunal.

Collaborative law, or the collaborative process, must be initiated by voluntary parties fully informed of the nature of this approach. Collaborative law is useful for spouses who prioritize maintaining their affable relationship, especially co-parents. Willing and determined persons, along with their legal counsel, are committed to finding solutions without appearing in court. The goal is to utilize transparent discussion to arrive at a resolution that is fair and agreeable to both parties.

Arbitration as an ADR Family Law Process

Arbitration is a similar alternative to court litigation as mediation, wherein two spouses agree to meet with a neutral third party outside of the court environment. The difference is that the neutral party is known as an arbitrator in this instance, and they are charged with facilitating the meetings and ultimately determining any legally binding decisions in the case.

This resolution method is private, usually less time-consuming than litigation, and still lends some flexibility to the parties over the process, such as when the proceedings occur and the choice of arbitrator. The couple relinquishes all decision-making authority to the arbitrator, who will find the most logical and fair resolution after hearing evidence and arguments from each person. Furthermore, arbitrators can be specialists in a specific area of law or other knowledge, providing assistance and insight in relevant matters, such as complex financial issues.

Arbitration is a wise choice for spouses who agree that an expert should be the one to decide any outcomes and those who have problems communicating or negotiating with each other. Arbitration also offers the parties an assigned binding resolution under the law, whereas any terms resulting from mediation must be mutually and voluntarily reached.

Other Options for Alternative Dispute Resolution

Alternative Dispute Resolution

Fortunately, certain courts will offer their own developed ADR programs to supply families with qualified and trained legal professionals on the specific matters at hand, often saving them time and fees. The Maricopa County Superior Court has such programs and services, including:

Settlement Conferences

A settlement conference is an informal meeting between two parties, with or without legal counsel, within a family law matter. This conference is monitored and facilitated by a volunteer judge pro tempore (for the time being), who is a neutral attorney. These professionals volunteer their services pro bono and are court-appointed to cases similar to yours based on their experience.

Open discussion and collaboration on original solutions to pertinent problems are encouraged within a settlement conference. Each person has an opportunity to actively participate in their issue resolution rather than waiting for a ruling from another party. Full or partial agreements will usually be documented by the judge pro tempore who relays the results, or lack thereof, to the court.

All cases regarding dissolution matters pre-finalization, paternity/maternity, and grandparent visitation are eligible for this ADR method. Conferences may be ordered by the court or requested by the spouses themselves. This approach can be quicker, more cost-efficient, and may ultimately feel more fulfilling than a court proceeding.

Conciliation Services

Conciliation services are for married individuals broaching or amidst the divorce process. The purpose of this brief, private conference is to help inform and promote thoughtful consideration in couples making a decision regarding their marital status and union. This service is conducted by a professional trained in marriage and family concerns who will not pressure either person into reconciling; final decisions come only from the spouses.

After completing the conference, interested couples may be referred to further assistance within community-based services. Divorcing and non-separating spouses must file a Petition for Conciliation and obtain approval in order to attend.

Evaluation Services

Evaluation services, or parenting conferences, are non-confidential and supervised by an assigned Parenting Conference Conciliator. During a potential separation/divorce, these meetings assist the court in determining what the spouses agree and disagree on in areas concerning their child(ren). Topics include parenting time, residential arrangements, and authority over legal decisions. Parenting conferences include joint and separate meetings. Evaluation services are usually ordered by a judge within a court hearing.

What to Consider When Thinking About Alternatives to Litigation

When you’re determining how you’d like to go about settling your family law issues, it’s advisable to consider the potential successes and challenges each method may offer your specific situation. Arguably, the most important factor to consider is the relationship and communication between you and your spouse.

If there’s a history of abuse, violence, or erratic behavior, proceedings that involve more judicial input and authority may be preferable and safer options for you. Relatedly, if you simply don’t have much faith in your and your spouse’s ability to communicate or compromise, then alternative resolutions may not save you much time or money. If you’re unsure what your best option is, asking the opinion of a family law attorney will be sure to give you some helpful insight and advice.

How to Prepare for Your Dispute Resolution

For those couples determined to proceed with an alternative dispute resolution, no matter which method you choose, there are some things you can do to streamline the process and improve the chances for success.

Be sure to begin the process with honesty and an ability to negotiate over important family matters. Approaching the situation with a contrary or headstrong disposition and being resistant to any compromises will only extend arguments and the process overall. Also, hidden resentments, assets, or other secrets can not only lengthen the proceedings but also put you at risk for legal issues. You must be transparent with your spouse, the facilitator(s), and any legal counsel.

Begin by determining your goals and priorities regarding each matter. Try to remain realistic and manage your expectations; expecting to achieve everything you want while ignoring opportunities for compromise will only hurt your cause. It is also essential to collect all relevant documents and information prior to beginning your resolution procedure, such as contracts, bills, correspondence, financial records, and more.

Finally, it is crucial to remember that even if you achieve a mutually agreeable solution during alternative dispute resolution, an Arizona family court judge must approve the outcome. A judge must issue the final Divorce Decree and approve any related parenting plan, including child support, parenting time, and more. However, a single hearing is typically enough to achieve this.

Your Arizona Alternative Dispute Resolution Attorneys

Alternative Dispute Resolution Attorney

At Desert Legal Group, we can help you address several areas of family law, including divorce, court order modification, parenting time, and more. Our knowledgeable family law attorneys are experienced in reaching favorable resolutions through mediation and other alternative dispute resolution approaches. We will give your case the attention it requires and deserves: conducting careful research, constructing formidable arguments, and answering any questions you have. Contact our firm to schedule a consultation today.

References :

  1. Alternative Dispute Resolution | Maricopa County Superior Courts. (n.d.). Superiorcourt.maricopa.gov. Retrieved March 13, 2024, from https://superiorcourt.maricopa.gov/court-resources/services/adr/

  2. Family Conciliation Services | Maricopa County Superior Courts. (n.d.). Superiorcourt.maricopa.gov. Retrieved March 13, 2024, from https://superiorcourt.maricopa.gov/departments/superior-court/family/conciliation-services/#

  3. Settlement Conferences | Maricopa County Superior Courts. (n.d.). Superiorcourt.maricopa.gov. Retrieved March 13, 2024, from https://superiorcourt.maricopa.gov/court-resources/services/adr/settlements/

  4. Civil Short Trial | Maricopa County Superior Courts. (n.d.). Superiorcourt.maricopa.gov. Retrieved March 13, 2024, from https://superiorcourt.maricopa.gov/court-resources/services/adr/civil-short-trial/


*Editor’s Note: This article was originally published