Pro Se Litigants in Family Court Mediations Appearing For or Representing Oneself

An increasing number of couples in South Carolina are filing “pro se” divorces each year. A pro se divorce is when a husband and wife for financial, privacy or other reasons have agreed to resolve the issues related to the dissolution of their marriage, such as custody, visitation, support, property division, etc., without hiring attorneys. The pro se mediation is collaborative; it occurs in a “safe” and private environment where the couple is empowered to discuss their concerns. The mediator does not give legal advice, but provides expertise and guidance on the legal and non-legal issues with which the couple faces. Simply put, family mediators facilitate communication between the parties, and help them move past any conflict so they can focus on their needs and what is best for their children. Pro se mediations often result in a marital settlement agreement. Once a settlement agreement is reached, couples are strongly advised to each consult with an attorney of their choice to ensure that their rights are protected by the terms of the agreement since the mediator helps them as a couple and not individually.

The Upstate Mediation Center (UMC) has a pool of trained mediators that are highly skilled in pro se mediation. The following is an example of a pro se mediation held at the UMC between amicable parties. However, even in acrimonious separations where couples feel more comfortable attending the mediation in separate rooms, pro se mediations have a high success rate.

Jane and John made the mutual decision to separate after 25 years of marriage and three children. The couple had no animosity toward each other and each was committed to doing what was best for the family. They were overwhelmed with all the decisions that had to be made such as how Jane could afford to keep living in the marital residence with the children and John could afford his own residence, dividing the value of a family business, child support, huge debt from prior financial setbacks and most importantly, how to pay the tuition for the two children already in college and the third child that would enter college in two years. A friend told them about the time and dollar benefits of family mediation, and they came to the UMC after learning about family mediation from the UMC website. Both were gainfully employed, but together they were in dire financial straits and very concerned about keeping status quo for their children.

Jane and John treated each other with respect and insisted on meeting jointly with the mediator. Realizing that the couple could work toward resolution in a transparent and peaceful manner, the mediator spent the first session identifying every issue and what financial information would be required to have a meaningful discussion of the possible outcomes. He had them track expenses for the next two weeks and formulate going forward budgets. He suggested they come back with a list of what issues were most important to them and what they thought was most important to the other. At the mediator’s suggestion, they met with their accountant to discuss financial ramifications of Jane relinquishing her interest in the business and whether John’s support obligation would be better characterized as alimony or child support. They were asked to explore all available student and parent loans for college expenses and get a fair market value of their home from a real estate agent friend. As suggested, they did their “homework” together which fostered trust in the answers they received.

In the second and third sessions with the mediator, the couple was well equipped to brainstorm resolutions knowing what was important to each other and what resources they had available to work with in the future. The mediator advised them that attorneys and judges often strive for equal division of assets as that is a standard measure of fairness. A theme throughout the mediation was that the optimal resolution of each issue might result in the global agreement not having the appearance of being equal or fair. However, if each of their priorities was addressed to their satisfaction, and they agreed the resolution preserved the unity of the family without discord, they had reached an optimal agreement. In three sessions over a period of six weeks, Jane and John resolved all of the issues arising from their separation to their mutual satisfaction and preserved their limited savings for college expenses.

This case clearly demonstrates the efficiency and expediency of family mediation and how the UMC can benefit families in this time of transition. Further, studies show that couples that enter into voluntary agreements are more likely to honor the terms of their agreements than they are with judicially imposed resolutions.