Alternatives to Massachusetts Family Court

Family law disputes such as divorce, child custody, visitation, spousal support are often emotional and can be stressful. When two parties cannot agree, they may believe taking their case to court is the only option. Litigation, however, can be expensive and may be a very lengthy process. Additionally, the courtroom environment empowers the judge to make decisions instead of allowing the two parties involved to decide what is best.

There are viable alternatives to litigation and these options often allow the parties involved to determine what works best for them. Consider these effective alternatives.

1.    Use a Mediator. Mediation is a productive way for each party to discuss, debate and decide for themselves the issues that are important to them, including child custody, financial support and property division. A professional mediator is a neutral facilitator. Through one meeting or over the course of a series of meetings, the mediator will help the parties reach an agreement and draft a document outlining what was agreed upon. That document will then be submitted to the court for approval. The Agreement cannot be incorporated into a Judgment of Divorce until  it is approved by a judge. Since a mediator cannot give legal advice, it’s often recommended that both parties consult an attorney to discuss their individual rights and the consequences of certain decisions within the agreement drafted by the mediator.  Mediation may take place before or after a case has been filed with the Court.  Typically discussions had during mediation are confidential and cannot be shared with the Court.

2.    Use a Conciliator. Several counties in Massachusetts have instituted a low cost or free conciliation program that allows parties and their counsel to meet with a conciliator to discuss resolution.  Most of these programs require at least one party to have counsel.  Conciliation is similar to mediation in that both involve a neutral person assisting the parties to reach a final resolution.  There are a few differences worth noting.  Unlike mediation, the conciliator will usually file a report with the Court to inform the Judge what occurred during the sessions. Also, conciliation may only occur after a case has been filed.

3.       Attend Arbitration.  Parties may also hire a neutral third party to serve as a private judge.  The parties can agree on a particular process and present their case to the arbitrator, who will then write a decision.  The decision must be presented to the Court for final approval.  Arbitration is similar to a trial on the merits, but there are a few advantages, such as privacy, a timeline that is more flexible than the current court docket, and the ability to select the decision-maker of your own choosing (who may be an expert in a particular and relevant field).

4.       Enlist the help of a parenting coordinator. Child-related disputes are often the most debated issues during and after a divorce. When issues arise, enlisting the help of a parenting coordinator can be beneficial. Like a mediator and conciliator, a parenting coordinator is a neutral professional that can help with dispute resolution, especially in cases where parents have difficulty communicating and agreeing on matters.

5.    Collaborative Law. Another option is to ask your family law attorney if he or she has training in collaborative law. The collaborative law process involves working with a neutral party and your attorney to settle family law issues. However, at the start of the process both parties must agree not to litigate their case, and both attorneys must agree not to represent their clients in litigation. While this agreement often forces the parties to work together to amicably resolve an issue, it does restrict both persons from litigating even if they feel it is necessary.

Whatever means of resolution you decide, it’s important to understand your options and seek the guidance and advice of an experienced professional such as a certified mediator or family law attorney.