When divorcing it’s usually preferable to make the necessary decisions yourselves rather than leave them to a judge.  These decisions fall into four main areas: co-parenting, child support, spousal support, and division of assets and debts.  But where to begin and what’s the best sequence of decision making?

sequence of decision makingOne of the advantages of divorce mediation is that the mediator can help you structure the process so that it is relatively simple, productive and efficient.  There isn’t a cookie-cutter approach that applies to all couples.  But there is a general logic to approaching it as follows:

Default Sequence of Decision Making

  1. Start with co-parenting. Why?  Several reasons:
  • The well-being of the kids is paramount.
  • Time with the children is usually very important to both parents. Getting this worked out can help each parent relax more in the process.
  • There are lots of small decisions that go into a parenting plan. Examples are who will have the children at Christmas and who will have them at spring break.  Making all these small decisions together can build goodwill and a head of steam that can carry into the rest of the decision-making.
  • Who will have the children how much of the time is one of the main factors that goes into the decision making as regards child support.
  1. Next up is division of assets and debts. Reasons:
  • The first step here is to clarify all the assets and debts and their values. This is a matter of fact-gathering rather than decision making.  Doing this together and reaching agreement on what exactly there is often furthers a sense of teamwork.  This is helpful for the upcoming important decision making.
  • For most of the assets and debts, deciding how to divide them up is often fairly easy.
  • Working out who is getting what assets/debts and what they are worth gives each spouse a better understanding of their financial position. It helps to have this understanding before discussing support.
  1. Next is child support. Reasons:
  • Parents usually understand up front that some child support will be required.  The main question is how much.
  • Child support is usually easier to work out than spousal support.  It’s often easier to agree to support your children than to support the adult who will soon be your ex-spouse.
  • There’s a standard calculation for child support. There is no valid calculation for post-divorce spousal support.
  • The time share worked out in the parenting plan is one of the main inputs for the calculation of guideline child support.
  • The amount of child support often affects the possible amount of spousal support, especially when incomes are limited.
  • The law says that the needs of the children must be considered before addressing the perceived ongoing financial needs of spouses.
  1. Finally, spousal support.  It’s usually last because it is affected by the decisions above, it’s the most vague area in the law, and it’s often the most difficult to resolve.

Other Considerations

Fairly often it’s not so simple because much is inter-related.  For example, maybe who stays in the house affects the co-parenting plan and maybe the amount of support determines whether it’s feasible to stay in the house.  Then the best approach is often more like peeling an onion.  We circle around to each area, understanding the considerations and constraints and what needs to be decided.  Gradually some decisions are made in one area that then facilitate decisions in another area.  And so on.

Even with the four-step sequence of decision making above, it often makes sense to go back and revisit some previous decisions once a fuller picture is in view.  A good mediator will encourage the spouses not to consider individual decisions to be final until everything has been worked out.

If a judge were to decide your divorce in a trial, the judge could normally be expected to follow the four-step sequence of decision making above, with the possible exception of determining child support before dividing your assets and debts.