Once upon a time, or to be more precise, when the Red Sox won the World Series, there was a family who resided in a tony suburb of Boston in a sprawling colonial house on four manicured acres of land. They had it all, or that’s the way it looked—swimming pool with a waterfall and jacuzzi, a luxurious cabana, and a tennis court. The inside of the house was no less impressive—seven bedrooms, each with a bathroom and dressing room. Oh my, life appeared to be sweet, very sweet. Yet one day, Lisa and Matt, the couple who owned this lovely property, were sitting near the pool, when Matt announced that he wanted a separation. As Lisa looked at him in shock, he went on:
“I do not want to hurt you or the children,” of which there were three, “but for over a year now I have been living with the knowledge that I am quite unhappy. I do not see any point in prolonging things. We have the wherewithal for everyone to be just fine.”
Speechless at first, Lisa found her voice. “For over a year you have been thinking of separation, which in fact is, I’m sure, divorce, and have not said a word. Nothing about being unhappy, nothing about maybe seeking counseling, nothing about anything, and now that you have finally chosen to share your thoughts, it is a fait accompli. How very nice of you!”
No need for us to eavesdrop anymore, although of course the discourse did not stop there. Quickly things became very heated. Threats flew back and forth. Neither one wasted time in hiring what each believed to be the best and toughest divorce lawyer in town. In the process they also retained psychologists for each child to protect them, they reasoned, from what was likely to be a protracted and ugly battle. After all, they were both now very angry and there were many assets on the table.
Lisa told her lawyer that she was sure that Matt had been planning his escape for a long time and probably had assets hidden all over the place, not to mention a woman or two. She confessed that she knew nothing of the finances of the family. Her job was to take care of the kids and house, a job that she did with skill and love. Matt’s job was to develop his company, one that he had started right after they had married. And, he had indeed been very successful, growing a small high tech firm into a major competitor in the U.S. marketplace.
Matt told his lawyer that he did not want Lisa to have a hand in running his business. He wanted a closed-end deal. There were enough assets for each one to be just fine and certainly there was enough income for everyone to live comfortably. This was no big deal. He wanted a settlement and he wanted it quickly.
Two years passed, documents were compiled, depositions were taken. The legal bills mounted but nothing much happened. Matt did move out, and Lisa did begin to see a counselor to deal with her anger and her hurt. But as far as reaching a settlement, that seemed in the distant future.
It was Lisa’s therapist who suggested that maybe she was going down the wrong path; maybe this litigation route wasn’t having the desired effect. Clearly, it had not provided a settlement; clearly it had not calmed things down. The children were responding negatively to their parents’ battle and the tension in both households. Cautiously, the therapist asked Lisa if she had thought about mediation. Lisa answered that she had not. Mediation, what little she knew about it, was for those who had limited holdings. Anyhow, she was surely not equipped to stand up for her rights by herself. Matt knew the finances, not she. The therapist suggested that Lisa find out more about mediation; maybe it was not appropriate for her and Matt, but what was there to lose in checking it out. She, the therapist, had quite a few clients who had chosen mediation because they wanted to determine their future, they wanted to decide how to divvy up assets and plan for the future. They felt satisfied that mediation had helped them reach an agreement that included future as well as present provisions. They basked in the fact that they controlled the outcome.
Although armed with skepticism galore, Lisa did contact the mediator recommended by her therapist. She was surprised by the answers she received. No, she did not have to give up her legal counsel. Quite to the contrary, the mediator recommended that clients have their agreements reviewed by attorneys and, if needed, seek legal input during the mediation process. Moreover, the mediator suggested that if Lisa felt disadvantaged by her lack of financial knowledge, perhaps she and her husband could agree that Lisa would work with a financial planner or accountant during the process to assist with financial analysis and with helping Lisa understand the data. “Mediation needed to be grounded in data and in understanding the data”, the mediator said. Lisa might never have her husband’s financial acumen, but she would and could process the data with assistance in order to understand proposals and, of course, the final settlement. “Most significant of all, it was essential,” the mediator explained, “for Lisa and her husband to shape an agreement that provided for their family’s future and present.” This shaping needed to be tailored to the family’s standard of living, the family’s present and future needs. This shaping needed to fit this family, really fit.
And so, Lisa emailed Matt, the following, four-word sentence: “We need to talk.” Matt, who had not spoken to Lisa for seven months, responded immediately.” You name the time and place.”
This story does not have a happy ending, in the sense of they lived happily ever after together. But it does have an ending that prevented the future deterioration of this family. Matt and Lisa did not fire their attorneys. They held them at bay to be used for input and review. Lisa hired, with Matt’s approval, a financial planner to help her process the data and to run calculations based on proposals generated in mediation. Matt and Lisa worked together to identify and understand each other’s needs and to structure an agreement that each one felt was equitable and workable. The process was by no means easy. Learning and thinking and analyzing are tough work. The end result was, however, intellectually and emotionally satisfying to both parties.
High net worth couples like Matt and Lisa are not alone in their selection of combat as the route of choice when seeking divorce. Often these couples believe it is the only route. They believe that the size of their estate forces them to secure “big guns.” Yet these are the very couples that have the ability to “think through” an agreement and the wherewithal to recognize that ultimately there is a way for everyone in the family to be okay. It is these couples that often view mediation the most positively, even if they do not choose the route until they have spent years and hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal combat. It is these couples that leave mediation proud of their ability to take charge of their divorce and their lives. In this sense there is a happily ever after post-divorce family.