Tuesday, February 2, 2016

What to Expect during a Divorce Settlement Conference

Many attorneys start the beginning of divorce cases attempting to reach a settlement or agreement resolving all of the issues in the case.  This includes custody, division of property, retirement accounts, debts, spousal support, etc.  Here's a bit about what to expect during a settlement conference.

There are two major types of settlement conferences.  The first method is to do a 4-way settlement conference, meaning both parties and both attorneys are present.  Typically, this happens in a conference room at an attorney's office.  The attorneys will start to work through each issue to see if the parties can agree on some things.  During this, there tends to be a lot of emotion, as you are literally sitting across the table from your soon to be ex-spouse.  Of course, at any time, you and your attorney can step out and have private conversations.  This tends to work in more amicable situations when there is less anger involved.

Personally, I prefer the second method of a settlement conference: judicial settlement conferences.  In Virginia, a pending case can be referred to a retired judge to help facilitate settlement.  Typically, in these cases, the attorneys will write out a settlement proposal, i.e., what their client wants to see happen with property and custody, and submit it to the judge ahead of time.   Remember each judge conducts these a little bit differently.  However, typically, once you arrive, the judge will me with both parties and both attorneys in a conference room - these tend to be held at the courthouse.  The judge will go over the process and explain how he prefers to conduct his settlement conferences.  In most cases, the judge will ask each attorney, or if the party prefers, each party, to give him a general idea of what the issues are and how we can all resolve them.  After that, the judge will meet with each party and their attorney separately.  At this point, it is a back and forth between each party as the judge tries to narrow the gap to reach a settlement.

To give you a real life example of this, Wife may come into a settlement conference requesting $5,000 per month in spousal support for 10 years and Husband may come into the settlement conference saying he will pay no more than $3,000 per month in spousal support for 8 years.  What the judge might do, is bring the parties closer together and encouraging each of them to budge a little bit, so maybe we could all consider $4,000 per month for 9 years and compromise.  The reason this works is because no one can know what a judge will do if you take your case to trial.  The judge could award $8,000 per month for 15 years or the judge may simply deny spousal support.  So, when Wife and Husband are in control of their situation, most people would prefer to agree to something a little higher or lower than they originally wanted rather than risk going to trial and having no control over what a judge will do.

Assuming the parties can reach an agreement, at the end of the settlement conference, one of two things will happen.  If practical, the attorneys may draft the agreement on the spot and have both parties sign it that day.  In many cases, however, that simply isn't practical.  So while you will leave the conference with an agreement, the attorneys will go back to their respective offices, draft a full property settlement agreement and then have the parties sign it at a later date.

Settlement Conferences are important and serious but to calm your nerves, remember this meeting is all about agreement.  You will not be forced to agree to something you don't want to and no rulings will be made by a judge that day.  So take a deep breath and prepare to give and take a little bit.