The term pro se means “on one’s own behalf.” A person is pro se when he or she represents himself or herself.
One process for dissolving a marriage is pro se divorce mediation. The parties hire a mediator to assist them in negotiating an agreement to dissolve their marriage, but they do not hire attorneys. The mediator may or may not also be an attorney, but the mediator will not and cannot represent the parties (or either of them) in court.
The parties do not have to file for divorce first in order to use the pro se mediation process. Similarly, parties who have already filed for divorce pro se may then seek the assistance of a mediator to help them work through unresolved issues.
Mediating before actually filing the divorce case in court makes sense for some divorcing couples who are able to communicate with each other and the mediator. Mediation will significantly reduce the time and, in almost all cases, the cost of a divorce. Once the parties have signed a mediation agreement, they can file divorce papers in court as an uncontested divorce.
Couples interested in a pro se mediated divorce should realize that mediation is not necessarily easy or a process into which they should enter lightly. If the mediation succeeds, the parties will sign a memorandum of understanding establishing the terms of the resolution or settlement. Although the mediator will assist the parties and will be able to provide legal information, the mediator’s role is not to provide legal advice. Unless the agreement the parties have made is so one-sided as to be unconscionable, the mediator will not advise either party against entering into the memorandum of understanding. The agreement is the agreement of the parties, not the mediator. For these reasons, it may be prudent to have a lawyer (not the mediator) review the agreement before the parties sign, to make sure they understand all the legal consequences.
The parties to a mediated divorce must also abide by certain rules or guidelines. For example, if the divorcing couple has minor children, the couple will need to meet the child support guidelines or be able to explain to the judge why they have deviated from the guidelines. Some acceptable reasons for deviations from the guidelines are available from the court, and the mediator may provide this information to the parties. Mediators will also help the parties calculate the Alabama child support guidelines as part of their mediation services. Additionally, the mediated agreement will need to include a parenting plan with provisions for how much time children will spend with each parent.
Once the divorcing spouses agree to mediate, the next step is to choose a mediator. The Alabama Center for Dispute Resolution (https://alabamaadr.org/) maintains a list of registered mediators in the state. Mediators are not required to place their names on this list, and some trained and qualified mediators may not appear there.
Selecting a registered mediator is nevertheless a good practice. The parties must of course agree on the selection. The public can use the list on the Center for Dispute Resolution’s website to see which mediators have completed approved courses in general, domestic relations, and domestic violence training; in fact, divorce mediators are trained and required to screen for domestic violence. Some mediators also have advanced training. Making sure that a mediator has met these requirements helps assure parties that the mediator is a trained professional who may be more effective and efficient, thus helping the parties complete their divorce without excessive fees and the costs of litigation.
The next step after selecting a mediator would be to contact the mediator to ask about fees, payment methods, and scheduling. Find out whether the mediator expects the parties to bring documents to the first session. Collect relevant documents, because at some point, possible in the second session, the mediator will need to review them as the mediation begins to focus on details. If you and your spouse own real estate together, you will need loan statements and unpaid tax and insurance bills. You will probably also need to collect tax returns for the previous three years. Share this information with your spouse.
Most importantly, bring openness and willingness to compromise. In a later blog post, we will discuss the type of negotiation that is required for the successful outcome of a divorce mediation. For the present, though, realize that divorce mediation, whether pro se or otherwise, should create a mutually-beneficial agreement with two winners, not a winner and loser.