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Understanding Divorce Mediation with Mediator Michael Cortes

Divorce is undoubtedly one of the most challenging life changes a person can face. It is the only time where you are facing changes in your relationship status, family dynamics, friendships, finances and living situation at the same time. The emotions, financial stress and list of decisions to be made can feel overwhelming and paralyzing. The traditional litigation route through courts exacerbates these issues by adding to the conflict and financial burden divorcing couples are already dealing with.


Divorce Mediation offers an alternative path that can help foster communication, keep families out of court and result in more amicable solutions. Recently, I had the opportunity to sit with Michael Cortes, a retired family law attorney turned mediator, to delve into the intricacies of mediation and how it can serve as a more dignified and cost-effective solution during a divorce.

The Role of Mediation in Divorce


Mediation serves as a peaceful way to resolve disputes during a divorce without the intervention of a trial. Michael Cortes explains that mediation is "a voluntary slash mandatory process", meaning that, while the divorcing couple ultimately chooses what decisions and agreements are made during mediation, many courts require them to go to mediation before a case can even go before the judge. This serves to encourage parties to settle disputes outside of the courtroom, where they have more control over the outcome.


What is Mediation?


Mediation is fundamentally a process where a neutral third party, the mediator, helps the disputing parties communicate to reach a mutually acceptable agreement. Unlike a judge, a mediator does not impose decisions. Instead, they facilitate discussion and propose unbiased solutions to help parties reach their own agreements.


What is Pro Se Mediation?


Michael clarified that "pro se mediation involves parties mediating without attorneys, while attorney mediation includes legal representation for guidance. Most cases in Central Florida are mediated without attorneys, yet both forms strive to reach an agreement."


Both forms of mediation can be highly effective and the choice really depends on the complexity and needs of the parties involved. It is important to realize that mediators all have a different style, approach and mindset when it comes to mediation. The clients should take the time to vet all professionals involved in their divorce to ensure they align with what the client is looking for.


Misconception about Mediation: Mediator’s Role


When discussing mediation, it’s essential to clear up some common misconceptions that people often have when going into the process. Tina Keyes highlighted a significant point: "People come in thinking, oh, the mediator's [going to] hear what I have to say, and they're [going to] make a decision based on that. That's not how it works."


One of the most common misconceptions is that mediators have the authority to make decisions. However, mediators are not judges. Michael Cortes clarifies, "[Mediation is] voluntary in the fact that the mediator has no authority to do anything. They can't make any decisions. They can't place blame." Mediators can offer options and ideas, but ultimately, reaching an agreement is up to the disputing parties.


Confidentiality in Mediation


Another critical aspect of mediation is confidentiality. This encourages open dialogue and allows parties to propose solutions without fear that these suggestions will be used against them in front of the judge. No offers made during mediation are to be brought into the courtroom and the mediator cannot be called in to testify, which makes it easier to look at alternatives that one may not consider otherwise.


Preparing for Mediation


Preparation is crucial for successful mediation.


Michael talked about how "knowledge is key — [you need to] know your assets, liabilities, and income. Have a clear idea of what you want to achieve. Preparation streamlines the process and helps avoid costly delays." Michael added that the clients need to “set realistic goals and understand your ideal outcomes, acceptable compromises, and minimum acceptable terms. Clear communication of these goals helps negotiations." Being unprepared can lead to more extended mediation sessions, increased costs or a lack of agreement.


Understanding Your Needs and Limits


It’s also essential for parties to understand what they want from the mediation process. Michael advises that clients should have a clear outline their goals and limitations before the mediation. He clarifies that a client and his/her attorney should be able to say "Okay, here's our ideal. Here's where our goal really is maybe a little bit below that. And then here's our drop-dead line. Here's the absolute minimum we’re willing to accept." Tina added the importance of coming into the mediation process with more than one option in mind and ready to compromise to find a solution.


The Mediation Process: Step-by-Step


Understanding divorce mediation and how it differs from traditional divorce litigation will help you decide whether this process is right for you.

Initial Steps in the Mediation Process

The mediation process generally begins with both parties agreeing to mediate. Depending on whether lawyers are involved, mediation can either be pro se (without attorneys) or with attorneys. According to Michael Cortes, the presence of attorneys can streamline the process, particularly when legal advice is necessary.


Setting the Agenda for Mediation


Once the mediation begins, the first step is usually setting the agenda. This involves understanding what each party wants to discuss and the issues that need resolution. For example, child custody, property division and alimony are common topics in divorce mediations.


Negotiating and Building Options during Mediation


One of the primary goals of mediation is to build options that both parties can live with. Michael and Tina emphasize that mediation is fundamentally an “option-building process." Mediators help parties propose solutions and negotiate until they reach a satisfactory compromise. This collaborative atmosphere is often more conducive to problem-solving than the adversarial nature of courtroom litigation.


Addressing Emotional and Financial Barriers


Emotional Impediments to Mediation


Emotions can be one of the most significant barriers to successful mediation. Anger, resentment, and past grievances can cloud judgment. Michael points out, "A lot of times, people want to focus on what was done in the past." However, for mediation to be successful, the focus needs to shift to future arrangements and resolutions.


Financial Constraints during Divorce


Divorce litigation can be financially draining. Michael shares his personal and professional experience to drive this point home: “When I went through my divorce back in 2004, it cost the two of us a little bit over $140,000 to get divorced.” In contrast, mediation is generally far less costly. He further notes, “Just the cost of going to a trial for a one-day trial might typically be about $10,000-12,000, excluding the expenses of getting there.” This stark difference underscores the economic advantages of mediation over traditional litigation.


Achieving Successful Outcomes in Mediation


Building Momentum


The momentum can play a critical role in successful mediation. As parties begin to agree on smaller issues, the positive momentum can build, making it easier to resolve more significant disputes. Tina Keyes observes, "You get the positive momentum to start building, and people realize, oh, maybe we're not so far apart after all."


Flexibility and Multiple Proposals


Another critical factor for success is flexibility. Coming into mediation with one rigid proposal can be a blockade. Instead, having multiple options and being prepared to make concessions can lead to a settlement that satisfies both parties. Tina advises, "Don't just come in with one proposal or position and just be like, this is my position, I'm not backing down." Instead, taking that time to prepare and have a few different options ready can really help aid in the negotiations.


The Consequences of Failing Mediation


Failure to reach an agreement in mediation often means going to trial. Michael warns that not only is litigation costly, but it can leave a lasting negative impact on family relationships and mental health. Litigation typically involves a longer process, more costs, and emotionally draining experiences that can strain relationships permanently. It is very difficult for co-parents to come back from litigation and restore a peaceful co-parenting relationship.


Addressing Special Cases


Some issues, like deep-seated trust issues or safety concerns, can be particularly challenging to mediate. Michael recounts a case where firearms and child safety were a concern: "He was not going to give up his right to carry and she didn't want the kids around that because of violence issues." In such cases, it may be necessary to mediate most aspects of the divorce and leave specialized issues for the court to decide. Michael reminds us that you are still better off coming to agreements on most of the issues and leaving just the last decision or two up to the judge. This way, you retain control of the majority of these enormous decisions that will impact your family for decades to come.


Virtual Mediation


Since the COVID-19 pandemic, virtual mediation has become more common. Although initially skeptical, Michael acknowledges that virtual mediation has proven to be just as effective as in-person mediation. He shares, "Between DocuSign and Zoom, it's gotten to the point where it's just as fruitful either way, honestly." Virtual mediation offers the advantage of convenience without sacrificing efficacy.


Making Mediation Work For You


If you’re considering mediation, it’s essential to prepare adequately and understand what to expect. Have a list of assets and liabilities ready, know your goals, and be open to multiple options.


Final Thoughts


Mediation offers a less adversarial, more cost-effective way to resolve disputes during a divorce. By preparing adequately and approaching the process with an open mind, divorcing couples can often reach a satisfactory settlement that benefits everyone involved, especially the children.


For those navigating the difficult waters of divorce, exploring mediation can be a step toward a more amicable and financially sensible solution. The benefits are abundant: reduced costs, quicker resolutions, and perhaps most importantly, a healthier emotional environment for the entire family. Consider mediation not just as an alternative, but as a preferred route to end one chapter of life and peacefully begin another.


To connect with Michael, go to and connect with Tina at




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