Many couples flock to beautiful upstate New York in the Fall for the gorgeous foliage. This month, quick-service divorces can also be added to the Fall getaway. The Gideon Putnam Resort in Saratoga Springs, New York will debut its newest feature – a designation as a “Divorce Hotel.”
The hotel sits on a beautiful piece of land and has been considered a great wedding venue for years. The “Divorce Hotel” concept has actually been in practice in Europe recently, and now the US will be giving it a try. The general premise is that instead of worrying about a long, drawn-out and hostile process, couples can come for a weekend getaway and have their divorce taken care of, while enjoying scenic walks and spa treatments during the process. While I appreciate the idea of not wanting to prolong what is already a difficult process, I, as a mediator, question whether this approach provides couples with an environment conducive to informed decision-making. Given the delicate and complex nature of divorce, coupled with its lasting consequences, checking into the Divorce Hotel should only be done, if at all, in very limited circumstances.
The hotel boasts a personal and involved mediation process for the couple. While the hotel acknowledges that it cannot guarantee a successful outcome, it points out that a divorce can most certainly be done in just a few mediation sessions.The idea is that during breaks in sessions, each party can do other activities (separate or together). The Hotel’s mediator even points out that the environment could even allow couples to rekindle the marriage so that the divorce is not ultimately needed.
On the surface, it may be an attractive idea to some – why get stressed out when you can have everything taken care of in a weekend? To most, the break-up of a marriage requires careful consideration from an economic and emotional standpoint. If children are involved, much thought must be given to parenting issues to ensure the best interest of the children. Continued, meaningful relationships with both parents need careful planning. Each family is unique and there is no “one size fits all” approach. While the hype surrounding the Divorce Hotel may tempt those who want to avoid a costly court battle and move on with their lives quickly, there are certain considerations that any couple should keep in mind before checking in:
1. Choosing the right process and the right mediator
Family and divorce mediation is intended to be a confidential process in which a mediator, as an impartial third party, facilitates the resolution of family disputes by promoting a voluntary agreement. The mediator’s job is to encourage understanding and assist communication while focusing on common goals and interests. The artificial deadline and environment created by the Divorce Hotel undermines the standards and goals of the mediation process, as couples might feel undue pressure to reach an agreement in the short, two-day weekend.
By its very nature, the “Divorce Hotel” concept impairs the process in many ways. It affects the couple’s ability to gather and process information. It affects a proper screening to ensure that mediation is the right process. The ability to choose the right mediator for the case is also eliminated, or at the very least limited. The couple should choose a mediator that they feel comortable with, and one that they feel can adequately handle their case. Every mediator has a duty of competence, and the mediator should have the level of skills and experience that the case requires.
The divorce hotel has currently hired an in-house mediator for the divorce cases, with potential plans to bring more mediators on board. Having the choice made for you, in terms of who your mediator will be, may seem like a positive, but if the couple does not feel comfortable with that mediator, it may hinder the process as a whole.
While many of the details are still being worked out for the new Divorce Hotel, it is unclear if there is any specific stance on bringing in outside counsel. Even when a couple chooses mediation, many parties choose to consult with his/her own independent counsel during the process. When consulting with their attorneys, parties are entitled to the confidentiality of any of those communications.
It is also important to remember that the mediator is a neutral party in the process and does not represent the interests of either party. It is recommended that each party have the ability to consult with their own idendendent counsel during the process. The divorce in one weekend approach affects the ability to consult with counsel in a meaningful way.
2. Access to information is extremely important in the divorce process
Any decisions made during mediation must be based upon sufficient factual information. While it is possible to have the information ready and available in one weekend, there may be many situations where it just is not feasible. In my own experience, the divorce process is very often the first time the couple sits down together to discuss detailed asset and debt information. The couple may need help in deciding what information they need to make comprehensive decisions. No matter if the case is high-income and assets or low-income and assets, there needs to be sufficient understanding of the couple’s cash flow in order to ensure fairness and a positive outcome. The couple also needs to trust that the information is accurate and complete.
One example where more information may be required is when either party has ownership in a company. Just getting a handle on the nature of the business takes more than a weekend in most cases. An educated decision should be made about whether or not a valuation is needed. What may seem fair at first glance may actually be uneven when more information is analyzed. In order to ensure a fair and positive process (and outcome), the information must not only be available, but it must be analyzed properly, which may simply take longer than just a few days.
Another example is the distribution of retirement assets. The nature of each asset and its benefits need to be understood to make sure the distribution is reasonable and to avoid an unequal trade.
3. The divorce process can vary in length depending on your own unique situation
The couple’s specific circumstances will dictate just how long the mediation process will take. Because divorce is a big step, couples should not set articifical deadlines that impair good decision-making. it is important to set a practical pace based upon the information needed and how each person processes information. Checking in to the Divorce Hotel sets an expectation, whether planned or not, to reach an agreement in just one weekend. It is unclear at this point what happens if an agreement is not reached during the weekend. Will the mediator outline the next steps for the couple? Will a return to the Divorce Hotel be required? Alternatively, would the couple need to start anew with a new mediator? These are questions that should be asked before checking in.
4. Do you want your information to be kept confidential?
As the Divorce Hotel gets ready to open for business, there is the possibility of being featured on a reality show in which couple’s experiences are documented. While the couple would have to sign off on appearing on television, it is worth noting that checking in for what you expect to be a quiet and stress-free process may in actuality turn into a media frenzy.
Reality show or not, by its very nature, the Divorce Hotel affects the privacy of the mediation. It seems that the environment of the Divorce Hotel, which encourages mingling among couples, would lend itself to a breach of confidentiality. Will the Hotel staff understand the delicacy of the mediation proces? How will the couples’ confidentiality be protected?
5. Manage your expectations
A divorcing couple hopes to enter into a durable and practical agreement. They will live with the agreement for years to come. It will not only affect their quality of life, but it will also affect their relationship with their children and their own financial security and independence. With all of that in mind, couples looking to end the stress and pain of divorce in one weekend may be creating unintended consequences.