|Q.||What is the Family Financial Settlement Program?|
|A.||The Family Financial Settlement Program (FFS Program) is a statewide program established principally to assist divorcing couples in dividing their marital assets and debts. Unless the parties select one of the other dispute resolution processes available under program rules, such as neutral evaluation or judicial settlement conference, judges will require parties involved in such disputes to attend and participate in mediated settlement. In addition to discussing marital property and debts, issues like child support and alimony may also be addressed. |
Once ordered to participate in mediated settlement by the court, parties must attend the proceeding. If a party has a compelling reason not to participate, e.g., there has been domestic violence in the marriage, he or she may ask the court to rescind its order and dispense with mediation.
|Q.||Why was my case ordered to the Family Financial Settlement Program?|
|A.||With the assistance of a mediator, couples are encouraged to come to their own agreement on how to divide their marital property and debts and to address issues such as child support and alimony. Couples know more about their assets and debts and their financial needs than anyone else and are in the best position to make their own decisions. |
In addition, because the mediation process focuses on cooperation and consensus building, it can help to minimize conflict in what would otherwise be an adversarial proceeding. If an agreement can be reached, a protracted legal battle may be avoided and considerable time, stress and money may be saved. When a couple has children it can be especially important to minimize conflict and to keep interactions as positive and productive as possible. Protracted, stressful legal battles do not bode well for a couple’s ability to parent effectively post-divorce.
Lastly, when disputes can be settled in mediation and costly trials avoided, taxpayer funds are conserved and judges are freed to focus their time and attention on other pressing matters.
|Q.||How much will family financial settlement proceedings cost?|
|A.||The FFS Program is designed as a party pay program. What that means is that the parties, and not the court or taxpayers, assume the cost of the mediator’s fees. If you, your spouse, and the attorneys involved in your case are able to mutually select a mediator, his or her fee will be determined by agreement. If you cannot agree on or take no action to select a mediator, the Court will appoint one. FFS Program rules provide that a court-appointed mediator will be compensated at a rate of $150 an hour for mediation services plus a $150 one-time, per case administrative fee. Unless otherwise agreed or ordered by the court, the mediator’s fee is paid in equal shares by the parties. The administrative fee is due upon appointment of the mediator. All other fees are due at the conclusion of the mediation. |
If you are unable to afford the cost of a mediator, you may ask the court to make a determination to that effect. If the court finds you are unable to pay, your mediator is required to waive his or her fees. In districts that provide for judicial settlement conferences as an alternative to mediated settlement, there is no cost to the parties to participate in a conference. If you have legal counsel, he or she will accompany you to mediation and you will be responsible for his or her fees also.
If your mediation is successful, you may ultimately realize a savings in that you will be spared the cost of protracted litigation and/or a trial and even appeals. Even if your case does not settle in mediation, you may be able to narrow the disputes between you or to start a dialogue that your attorneys can carry forward in the coming weeks or months.
|Q.||What if I prefer to go to trial?|
|A.||Once your case has been ordered to mediated settlement conference or you have selected one of the alternate dispute resolution procedures available under the FFS Program Rules, you and your attorney must participate unless you are able to convince the court that your case is not appropriate for dispute resolution. Do not be too quick to reject mediated settlement. Even in cases where parties seem hopelessly at odds, a skillful mediator or neutral can sometimes find a way to get opposing parties thinking and talking about ways to resolve their disputes. |
|Q.||What happens at a mediated settlement conference?|
|A.||A mediated settlement is an informal legal proceeding that you will attend with your attorney. The mediator will act as a combination facilitator and referee. The mediator's goal is be to help you and the other side discuss your disputes and hopefully resolve them. The mediator is not an arbitrator or judge and should not tell you what to do. The mediator is there to help you figure it out yourselves. |
The mediator will begin by explaining the process and the rules for your discussions and may ask the attorneys to each make a brief opening statement. The mediator will then likely separate you and your spouse and speak with each of you and your attorneys privately in what is known as a "caucus". The caucus provides an opportunity for everyone to speak frankly and to put their cards on the table.
During the process, the mediator will work to help open channels of communication, to inject reason into the discussions, to carry offers and counter-offers between the parties, and to assist each side in seeing the dispute through the eyes of the other. In addition to helping facilitate your discussions, the mediator may also assist you in brainstorming options for settlement. Eventually, if you and your spouse are able to work things out and to come to an agreement, the terms will be reduced to writing and signed. If you cannot reach an agreement, your dispute will simply proceed to trial.
|Q.||Is this the same program as the Child Custody and Visitation Mediation Program?|
|A.||No. The Custody Mediation Program addresses issues of child custody and visitation. The Family Financial Settlement Program has a different focus --helping parties resolve financial issues, including division of marital property and claims for alimony and child support. The programs were set up separately to ensure that both parenting and financial issues were considered thoroughly and deliberately. If you have minor children, you will likely meet with both a Custody and an FFS mediator during your divorce. |
|Q.||Who mediates FFS cases?|
|A.||The NC Dispute Resolution Commission was created by statute in 1995 and charged with certifying and regulating mediators, including those who serve the FFS Program. If you and your spouse select a mediator certified by the Commission, you can be assured that mediator has completed family mediation training, has met other qualifications established by the Commission, and has demonstrated that he or she is of good character. Most certified mediators are experienced attorneys. Others are members of other professions, e.g., social work or psychology, or have significant family mediation experience.|
You and your spouse and your attorneys will be given an opportunity to select your mediator. Your attorney will likely know mediators that he or she has used successfully in the past. If you have no attorney, a list of certified family financial mediators is posted on this web site. In addition, a Guide to Selecting a Mediator is available under the “For the General Public” option on the Commission’s home page menu. You may also contact the Commission at (919) 890-1415 to learn more about mediators and the mediated settlement conference process.
|Q.||Where will my mediated settlement conference be held?|
|A.||The conference will be held in any location agreeable to the parties and the mediator. In the absence of agreement, the mediator shall hold the conference in the county where the action is pending. |
|Q.||What if I am unwilling to agree to the terms discussed at the mediation?|
|A.||Whether you are able to settle your case or not, your mediator will not give a report to a court about statements that were made or conduct that occurred at your mediation. If your case did not settle, the mediator will not blame anyone or tell the court why it did not settle. In rare instances where a statute requires it or there is a public safety issue, a mediator may be required to report statements made or conduct occurring to other officials, such as the police. The conduct of parties is not so closely regulated as that of mediators. If you are concerned that the opposing side or some other participant in your mediation might speak to the press or share with others what occurred at your mediation, you may want to speak with your attorney about the need for a confidentiality agreement. |
|Q.||What if I have a complaint about my mediator’s conduct?|
|A.||You may address your concerns to the mediator directly in the hope that any misunderstandings can be resolved amicably. Often times, complaints are the result of a misunderstanding and the mediator may be able to satisfactorily clarify matters for you. You or your attorney may also file a complaint with the NC Dispute Resolution Commission in Raleigh. The Commission enforces the North Carolina Supreme Court's Standards of Professional Conduct for Mediators. The Commission may be contacted at (919) 890-1415. |
|Q.||Will my attorney accompany me to mediation? |
|A.||If you have an attorney, he or she will be with you throughout the proceeding. The mediated settlement conference process is designed to give you and your spouse an opportunity to be directly involved in settlement discussions. However, if you are uncomfortable speaking at the proceeding, you may let your attorney do the talking. If at any point you wish to be alone with your attorney to discuss a matter privately, just let the mediator know. |
|Q.||What if I do not have an attorney? |
|A.||Since mediation is a legal proceeding and agreements signed in mediation may have significant legal consequences, it is preferable that parties have legal representation. Nevertheless, mediators will work with unrepresented parties, whether both are unrepresented or one has counsel and the other does not. It is important that parties without legal counsel understand that mediators must always remain neutral, so they should not look to or expect their mediator to provide them with legal advice or guidance. |
You may want to take your financial information and records to the mediation with you in case there are questions about your income, property or debts. You may also want to bring a list of all the property issues which you believe you and your spouse still need to resolve, including a list of any personal items or property which you want and that are still in your spouse’s possession.