Divorce: How to Prepare for a Settlement Conference
Frequently in a divorce, the parties engage in a settlement conference prior to trial in hopes of settling the case and avoiding a trial, saving the financial and emotional cost of trial. Settlement conferences usually have a settlement conference master who is independent (often a retired judge or practicing family law attorney) and assists the parties in reaching a settlement. The following are some ideas that help the parties reach a settlement at a settlement conference.
First, do your homework in advance. Complete all discovery so that everyone knows all the facts. Next, present this information to the settlement conference master in an organized fashion. This should include a cover letter that gives the background of the case, and all the necessary information on all the relevant issues (parenting plan, incomes of the parties, child support, spousal maintenance, property and debt division, restraining orders, etc.). You should include a spreadsheet of the division of the assets, and documentation showing the value of all assets. You should provide income verification and Child Support Worksheets. You should include your proposed Parenting Plan.
You need to organize and present all the information necessary to prove your case. While it is not a trial, you need to document your position. All of this information should be submitted to the settlement conference master (and the opposing party/attorney) at least 2 days in advance of your settlement conference. You should also receive the other party’s documents and letter at the same time. This will give you some time to understand their position and prepare arguments and find documents against it.
Once you have submitted your documents, you then need to prepare yourself mentally for settlement. This is not a trial, and to settle a case, usually both sides must do some “give and take”. It is also important to try to understand what your objective is and what the other sides objective is. Sometimes there are emotional issues that are more important than the dollar amount. If you know what they are, and are willing to “think outside the box”, sometimes you can be creative and find a solution that meets both sides objectives.
One of the most important suggestions is to listen to your settlement conference master. He will have read both sides information and will be approaching it objectively as a trial court would. You need to listen to his opinion, because if the case goes to trial, chances are the trial judge will read the case the same way the settlement conference master did. You and your attorney are biased in your favor. The other side is biased in their favor. This is your opportunity to hear a neutral opinion on the case prior to trial. Listen and be willing to settle.
Finally, figure out what the differences are between the two sides, and what the dollar value of that is. Compare that with the cost and risk of trial. Is it worth it to go to trial? It may be, but don’t assume that going to trial means that the judge will agree with you. After hearing the case, the judge may agree with the other party, and you would have done better with the results of the settlement conference. What will your attorney charge you to prepare for trial, and to go to trial? Trials can be very expensive (more than the value of what you are arguing over). Realistically evaluate the risks.