Time to Consider Giving Up on the Family Court System and Use a Private Judge

My practice has been limited primarily to Collaborative Practice and Mediation for many years, since I learned long ago that divorce is a problem to be solved not a battle to be won, and the court system only exacerbates the problem and most often leaves couples worse off, financially and emotionally. Collaborative Practice and Mediation allow a couple to divorce in a structured and facilitated process that enables them to stay out of court, gather and review all of their financial information together, brainstorm options for property division, co-parenting and support, and craft an agreement that works for all. This process reduces the fear and anxiety because every step in the process is taken together and both understand that nothing will happen and no agreements will be signed or filed until both agree.

These processes are not without difficulty and conflict. The couples are divorcing after all so there is most always conflict. But unlike the court system with uncaring judges and litigious attorneys, Collaborative Divorce and mediation endeavor to help parties communicate more effectively, understand each other’s needs and interests, and help them find common ground and shared goals. This most always leads to agreement.

Another reason I value out of court processes is that I believe in personal empowerment and the right and ability of most everyone to make their own decisions in such matters. With very rare exceptions, I can’t think of any good reasons divorcing spouses would want a judge (ie government official) to make decisions about how they divide marital property or co-parent and support their children and each other. In most all cases, the best people to make these important and personal decisions, are the parties themselves.

Once a couple agrees on the terms of their settlement agreement, the agreement and judgment forms are submitted to the court for processing. Sadly, the court processing can be unduly lengthy, often as long as three or four months, but until recently, most judges would approve judgments provided the parties completed the requisite paperwork and filed documents signed under penalty of perjury stating that they had each completed and exchanged the requisite financial disclosures. Parties working together can make any agreements they want, but the agreements must be based on full knowledge and understanding of all separate and community income, assets and debts.

Recently, however, many judges have begun asking mediating or Collaborative parties who have submitted their judgments to court for processing to attend uncontested hearings to explain and justify the terms of their agreement to the judge. These are folks who have chosen mediation or Collaborative divorce precisely because they wish to stay out of court. Often the first question people will ask is , “We won’t have to go to court, will we?” I used to be able to answer no to this question, but no longer. This unwarranted interference by the courts is, in my opinion, intrusive and overbearing and deprives the couples of their autonomy, dignity and right to make their own decisions.

So, for those who really wish to stay out of court, it appears that a good option is to stipulate to a private judge, which usually costs around $500 – $550. An extra fee, but well worth it for many. The other benefit of a private judge is that they are much faster than the courts – a private judge will review and sign off on a judgment in probably two to three weeks, rather than the three to four months taken by the court coupled with their burdensome requests to come to court to justify decisions and agreements. Plus there is the added psychological benefit that the entire divorce, not just the process of reaching an agreement, is outside of the dreaded court system.

With more than 13 years of experience working with clients in divorce and other family law matters, attorney and mediator Lorna Jaynes utilizes innovative legal tools to resolve these and other family law disputes for clients in the San Francisco Bay Area.