When most people think about the divorce process, the image that typically emerges is the couple standing in front of a judge hearing their marriage is now dissolved, followed by a recitation of the court’s decisions on property division, child custody, and support. While the formal judicial process for divorce petitions is certainly available to any couple wishing to end their marriage, it is not the only option, and other dispute resolution methods are routinely offered in Michigan and may be a better fit for certain couples. The more common alternative dispute resolution procedures used in divorces cases include: domestic relations referees, mediation, conciliation, and arbitration. Each alternative will be described below, along with the possible benefits and drawbacks of these options.
Friend of the Court referees are Michigan attorneys who serve as judicial officers in domestic relations cases. Referees are appointed by judges and are permitted to preside over all types of domestic relations cases, except those seeking to modify child support payments. Essentially, the serve as a stand-in for an elected judge and are permitted to hear evidence, hold hearings, and require the appearance of parties and witnesses. While this process is still fairly formal, it typically takes less time. They make recommendations to a judge that become the final order in a case unless a party objects to the referee’s conclusions and requests reconsideration before a judge within 21 days of when a party received the referee’s report.
Mediation is an alternative method of settling disputes between parties, and courts routinely order parties to try this process before a formal judicial case is initiated, but will not do so if the parties have contested the issues and withhold consent to the process. This process is used for couples who file for divorce or parties seeking resolution of a domestic relations matter, such as child support or parenting time. If a party objects to the assignment of his/her case to mediation, a written objection must be filed within 14 days following receipt of the mediation assignment order.
The process is non-binding and involves a neutral third party, the mediator, meeting with both parties in an effort to promote communicate and help the parties move towards a settlement. Other than the parties and the mediator, the parties’ attorneys are the only other people permitted at a mediation conference without prior permission. The parties are not bound by the mediator’s recommendations and can proceed through the standard judicial process if the outcome is undesirable.
Mediation is typically faster and cheaper than a regular trial, gives the parties more control over the outcome, and keeps the details of the case confidential. However, this process will not work properly if one the parties is intimidated or controlled by the other.
Arbitration is another voluntary alternative dispute resolution process parties can use to settle a case. The process is very similar to that of mediation; and the only real distinction being that the decision of the arbitrator is usually binding and becomes part of a court’s final order. Thus, even if the parties do not like the arbitrator’s decision, they must follow it.
Finally, the Friend of the Court (FOC) offers a conciliation process in family cases in certain counties. This procedure is less formal than mediation, but with similar goals, and is typically used early on in a case to try and resolve disagreement. If the parties cannot reach agreement, the FOC may still send a recommendation to the judge that could become a temporary order if the judge signs it. The parties do, however, have a right to object to the FOC recommendations.
Deciding to divorce is a hard decision, but it does not mean you must let a judge make all the decisions related to severing the marriage. Less formal options are available that allow you to benefit from the counsel of an attorney and save time and money. The Clinton Township law firm of Iafrate & Salassa, P.C. provides legal representation in all family law matters and can assist you with your case. Contact us to schedule your free initial consultation.
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