Divorce Mediation Checklist: How to Prepare for Your First Session

Keep costs and headaches to a minimum by going into your divorce mediation prepared. Use this checklist to make sure you've got all your bases covered.

By , Attorney · Cooley Law School

Divorce Mediation Checklist

What to Bring

  1. Directions
  2. Contact information
  3. Your calendar
  4. Court documents
  5. List of assets, debts, and property
  6. Financial statements
  7. List of key topics
  8. Payment
  9. Sound body and mind
  10. The right mindset

What to Be Ready to Discuss

  1. Property and debt division
  2. Retirement accounts
  3. Spousal support
  4. Child custody
  5. Child support
  6. Insurance coverage
  7. Future communication
  8. Anything else

Divorce is almost always difficult, especially if you and your spouse can't agree on a fundamental issue like property division, financial support, or child custody. Fortunately, if both spouses agree on most of the bigger issues, mediation can be an excellent—and less expensive—alternative to battling it out in court. (Learn about mediation basics here.)

Of course, if you decide to give mediation a try, you'll want to be fully prepared for it. When you walk into your session with all your ducks in a row, you'll feel more confident and avoid wasting precious time (and money) fumbling around for information the mediator needs. You'll also increase your chances of a fair outcome.

What to Bring to Mediation

The good news about preparing for mediation is that an experienced mediator will likely give you a list of items (mostly documents) to bring to the first session, as well as a rundown of how the day will flow and what to expect. In fact, the mediator will probably ask you and your spouse to submit specific documents (often electronically) in advance of the mediation.

Here's a list of what most mediators will ask you to bring, along with some additional items that might make life easier for you on the day of the mediation.

  1. Directions. If your mediation session is going to be in person rather than online, ask the mediator about the best parking options and map out your route to the office so you can get there on time.
  2. Contact information. Whether with your phone or address book, bring contact information for key players in your life, such as close family members who might care for children, insurance brokers, bankers, financial planners, and other trusted advisers.
  3. Your calendar. Be ready to discuss your calendar in case you need to schedule mediation follow-up sessions or other appointments. Having a record of your future commitments is especially important when you'll be discussing child custody matters.
  4. Court documents. If you don't have it already, prepare a file for yourself of all the documents that have been filed with or required by the court.
  5. A list of assets, debts, and other marital property. A list of items such as vehicles, bank accounts, property, valued personal items, and loans can facilitate property division discussions.
  6. Financial statements. Take the time to gather paperwork from all of your accounts: bank statements, credit card account documents, loan documents, and any other financial information you believe is relevant.
  7. A list of key topics that matter to you. It's easy to forget things when you're in the middle of negotiations. Consider preparing and bringing a list of key topics you want to make sure to cover. For example, you might want a reminder to discuss visitation on the kids' birthdays.
  8. Payment. Unless you're participating in free mediation services (for instance, a court-ordered mediation session), you'll need to pay the mediator. Before the session, ask the mediator about ways to pay, and make sure you and your spouse are on the same page about how to share the fees.
  9. A sound body and mind. Mediation can take hours, and you could find yourself physically and emotionally drained by the end of the day. Get a good night's sleep beforehand, and bring lunch, snacks, and drinks along in case the mediator doesn't provide these items. And in case the mediator's office has a blasting A/C unit or an oppressive radiator, wear layers.
  10. The right mindset. We saved the most important for last: patience, an open mind, and knowing what's not negotiable for you. These will help you get through the day while also making the most of the process.

What to Be Ready to Discuss in Mediation

Using the information learned from you during your mediation prep, your mediator will likely develop a list of topics to address during the session. Although every mediation is different, you'll want to be prepared to discuss:

  1. Marital property division and debt allocation. Before attending mediation, both spouses will probably complete a detailed financial and property worksheet. During negotiations, you'll determine what property belongs to the marital estate and what, if any, belongs to the individual spouses. Once you've done that, the mediator will help you determine how to split the marital assets.
  2. Retirement account division. Aside from the marital home, retirement accounts are often a couple's largest asset. Dividing retirement accounts in divorce can be complicated. Both spouses must disclose 401k, 403b, pension, and any other retirement accounts to their spouse before mediation. In most cases, if you want to divide a retirement account, you'll need to create what's called a "qualified domestic relations order" (QDRO) or "domestic relations order" (DRO). You and your spouse might need to hire a pension expert or QDRO preparation company to create an order for you.
  3. Spousal support. If you believe you'll need spousal support (also called "alimony" or "maintenance"), you should do a deep dive into your income and financial obligations before attending your mediation session. If you aren't sure where to start, a divorce attorney can help you understand your state's laws and calculations for support.
  4. Child custody. Before you attend mediation, you should learn a bit about child custody basics and familiarize yourself with the custody terms the mediator will use in your session. Our article on child custody mediation provides a great summary of what to expect.
  5. Child support. Your mediator should know the state's guidelines for child support and will typically use the formula to determine the final amount of child support. Be prepared to discuss any expenses that might be unique to your child, such as out-of-pocket medical costs or fees for extracurricular activities, as well as each parent's responsibility for child tax credits.
  6. Insurance coverage. You will want to discuss the ownership and possible transfer of all policies you have, such as medical, vehicle, property, and umbrella. When couples divorce, health insurance in particular often becomes a significant issue for at least one spouse—make sure you're ready to discuss how each of you will maintain coverage.
  7. Future communication. The mediator will help you work out these details, but be prepared to discuss issues like what happens when someone doesn't meet the requirements in the agreement, how you'll exchange tax information, who will pay legal expenses, how to resolve disputes, and the best ways to communicate going forward.
  8. Anything else. Think about any additional issues unique to your family. Are they now, or could they later be, a source of disagreement? Talking about them now might help you fend off down-the-road problems.

Wrapping up Your Mediation

Crossing off the items above is an excellent way to start preparing for your divorce mediation. Asking your mediator for suggestions on how to prepare is also a good idea. Most mediators will be able to offer some tips that are unique to their practice or to your specific circumstances.

Hopefully, at the conclusion of your mediation, you'll have agreed upon some—if not all—of the major topics for your divorce settlement. Your next step will be to get your marital settlement agreement (your written divorce settlement) filed with the court. Most divorce mediators help their clients prepare the settlement agreement and leave it to the parties to get it filed with the court. Your mediator should be able to provide you with the information you need to complete the filing.

Reaching an agreement is a huge step in the divorce process, not to mention something to feel good about as you start your next phase. Make sure to take the time and energy to prepare for the negotiation process so that you get the fair outcome you deserve.