Online Divorce Mediation

An in-depth look at what some refer to as “virtual” divorce mediation, its pros and cons, and how to get started if you decide it's right for you.

By , Attorney · UC Berkeley School of Law
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Divorce court proceedings are usually formal, expensive, and stressful. That's why many people look for a different way to get through the divorce process.

In divorce mediation, a neutral professional helps you and your spouse resolve important issues like alimony, child custody, and child support. Couples who reach agreement through this process get to skip the expense and stress of a court battle to resolve these sorts of issues. Mediating spouses can get to a settlement through one of two ways: in-person or online sessions.

How Does Online Divorce Mediation Work?

You can mediate your divorce online with either an individual mediator or an online divorce mediation service. If you want to hire an individual, you can research the mediator's background, qualifications, and personality.

If you consider a mediation service, you can read up on the company and the qualifications of its mediators. If you decide to try the service, the company might assign your case to a mediator based on your responses to some basic questions. (A mediator assigned by the service might be a good option if you and your spouse aren't likely to agree on a particular professional.) The same mediator often handles your case from start to finish.

Mediation Packages and Pricing

The cost of online mediation can depend on how complicated the mediator or service thinks your divorce will be. The mediator or service might ask about your finances, how much property you own, and whether you have children. You might have to answer these questions online or discuss your situation in a brief, free call. Or you might simply look at the packages the provider offers and choose the one that applies to your situation.

Regardless of the way you get your pricing information, you'll probably be looking at a flat fee quote. The flat fee normally covers a bundle of services that might include a particular number of sessions and the drafting of a marital settlement agreement. (Some mediation providers can also file the papers with the court for you.) Also, many online divorce mediators offer a-la-carte services—you can choose to add services, such as another mediation session if you need it.

Once you've decided on the mediation package, you might have to pay the entire fee up front, although some services will accept a down payment. Before paying, you'll want to know whether partial or full refunds are possible. For example, what happens if you come to an agreement in one mediation session instead of the two that you've paid for, or if you and your spouse can't reach an agreement? You'll also want to know whether additional charges could come into play. For instance, what if you need more mediation hours?

Mediation Platforms

Many online mediators use a computer program designed specifically for online mediation. Most programs are browser based, meaning you can access them from any computer, tablet, or phone as long as you have an Internet connection.

Most mediators who use online mediation programs require you to use the program for most if not all communication. But it's not a bad idea to ask whether other forms of communication, like emails, phone calls, or texts, are available.

Once you create a profile in the program, you can use it to send the mediator notes and questions. You can also use it to upload any documents needed for the mediation. For example, the mediator might ask you to submit a written statement (for the mediator's eyes only) about your concerns, needs, and goals for the mediation.

It's the policy of most mediators to keep all of your pre-mediation communication confidential, but you should confirm that your mediation provider follows that approach. You should be able to submit materials to the mediator privately and securely, in a way that doesn't let your spouse see them without your permission.

Mediation Sessions

Online divorce mediators use a variety of web-based programs to conduct the actual mediation. The computer program you use for the mediation might be the same one you've already been using to communicate with your mediator, or it might be another user-friendly program like Zoom or GoToMeeting. Although most programs allow for video conferencing, you'll probably be given the option to participate by phone if that's your preference.

A typical mediation session works like this:

  • Private rooms. You log in and enter an individual, virtual "room" that is separate from your spouse's. (Your spouse won't be able to see or hear you while you're in this room.) When anyone else (like the mediator) enters the room, you'll receive a notification.
  • Back-and-forth. Some mediators take a "shuttle" approach. Under this format, when the spouses and the mediator agree, the mediator can create a room for everyone to enter. If the parties would like to discuss an issue privately with the mediator, the mediator can break everyone out into their virtual rooms and shuttle back and forth to resolve the issue. (In-person mediation often works in the same way, the only difference being that the mediator goes between actual, physical rooms.) Other mediation providers hold only joint sessions, where all three people are in the same virtual place.
  • Agreement. Once the parties are in agreement, the mediator will assist the parties in drafting a marital settlement agreement.

Mediation Wrap-Up

What happens after your online mediation depends on what services you've paid for and whether you resolved all the issues in your divorce. If you're not able to come to an agreement during the mediation sessions you've already paid for, you might be able to book an additional session, assuming you, your spouse, and the mediator think it would be helpful.

After a successful mediation, some mediators prepare and file the paperwork that finalizes the divorce with the court. Others leave the paperwork and filing to you and your spouse.

You'll want to be clear about the scope of your mediator's services before you participate in the mediation. If your mediator doesn't prepare and file post-mediation paperwork and you don't wish to do it yourself, ask the mediator for recommendations for resources for finalizing the paperwork.

Deciding Whether to Use Online Divorce Mediation

Online mediation will work for many divorces, but it might not be ideal for every situation. Consider these pros and cons of mediating online to decide if it's right for you.

Pros of Online Mediation

Potential benefits of mediating your divorce online include:

  • Flexibility in location. You can participate in an online mediation from anywhere that has an Internet connection, including the comfort of your home. There's no need for anyone to travel or to compromise on where the mediation will be held. There's no driving during rush hour or searching for a parking spot in an unfamiliar location.
  • Wider selection of mediators. Because you're not limited by location, you can consider working with mediators who are located farther from where you live. It's essential that your mediator is familiar with your state's laws, though, so be sure that anyone you hire is either located in your state or has experience mediating in your state.
  • Ease of scheduling. It's much easier to find a time that works for everyone when the parties don't have to worry about traveling. You might even be able to mediate before or after traditional office hours.
  • The ability to stay physically apart. We're all used to physical distancing due to the coronavirus pandemic, but even when health isn't an issue, not having to meet face-to-face can be a plus—especially in a divorce. There's no escaping the reality that, in many divorces, discussions can get heated, and power imbalances can affect the parties' ability to communicate effectively. Hot tempers and power dynamics are less likely to be a concern when the parties are physically distant and negotiating from a location where they feel safe and secure.
  • Lower costs. Mediating online typically costs less than mediating in person—the mediator doesn't have to worry about the overhead costs associated with renting an office.
  • The ability to bring in other experts. Sometimes, you might want to bring in a professional, such as a lawyer or accountant, to assist you in the mediation. When you mediate online, it's easier and less costly to have these third parties attend. They can simply enter an online session as needed, and you don't have to pay for them to travel to a physical location.
  • Fluid sharing of documents. Online mediation platforms allow the parties to easily upload important documents in advance of the mediation. During the mediation, the mediator can digitally share any documents that are relevant to the discussion, avoiding confusion as well as the need to make physical copies.

Cons of Online Mediation

Some people would rather go through the mediation process in person. Think about the following to determine whether you're one of them.

  • Potential technology problems. If you're not comfortable using a computer or haven't used video conferencing technology before, conducting an hours-long mediation online might seem daunting. However, most programs are quite user friendly, and most mediators will be happy to walk you through the process. Yours might even be willing to do a "dry run" to work through any challenges. A related factor to consider is whether you've had problems with virtual meetings before, such as where the Internet cuts out or you lose electricity. Some glitches are to be expected in online communication, but persistent interruptions can be disruptive.
  • Lack of ability to "read the room." If you rely heavily on your ability to gauge people's body language in your day-to-day communications, you might find an online mediation challenging.
  • Perception of informality. Some of the pros of online mediation, such as the ability to participate from home, might also work against you. Ask yourself if you'll really be able to focus on the task at hand from home as though you were sitting in an office. Will you be distracted by roommates, kids, your phone, or the pile of laundry in the corner?

Finally, some types of divorces don't lend themselves to online mediation. Often, these are the same types of divorces for which mediation in general won't work. These situations include marriages where the spouses are extremely combative, where there's ongoing domestic violence, where one spouse can't locate the other spouse, and where there are complex business and financial concerns that will require lots of experts and documentation.

Getting Started With Your Online Divorce Mediation

You and your spouse will need to work together to some degree to begin the online mediation process. You‘ll have to agree to mediate, and to do the mediation online. The two of you might have to discuss how to go about finding a mediator or mediation service—perhaps each spouse can propose a few options.

Lastly, many people choose mediation precisely because they don't want to deal with courts and lawyers. But some people can afford and want to have a lawyer's advice while going through mediation process. If that's you, an attorney can help you weigh the pros and cons of mediating your divorce online and might be able to provide some recommendations for online mediators. The lawyer might also be able to help you work out any disagreements with your spouse about mediating online or choosing a mediator.

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