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One of the more difficult decisions in a divorce is choosing how to proceed. In the past, litigation was usually the only option available – and it was often a contentious, expensive and drawn-out process. Today, options such as collaborative divorce, mediation and family law arbitration offer alternatives to litigation.
In 1999, North Carolina became the first U.S. state to enact a law authorizing arbitration in the specific field of family law, including divorce. Many couples have found arbitration to be a valuable time-saving and cost-saving alternative when collaboration or mediation has led to an impasse.
At Charles R. Ullman & Associates, our experienced Raleigh family law arbitration lawyers have experience navigating arbitration as one of many alternatives to litigation. Raleigh Family Law attorney Charles R. Ullman has served as both an attorney assisting clients through the arbitration process and as a family law arbitrator.
What Is Family Law Arbitration?
In arbitration, the parties agree to have specific legal issues heard and decided by a neutral third party – the “arbitrator.” Arbitration is typically governed by a written agreement that states what the arbitrator will focus on and how the process will unfold.
Arbitration differs from mediation in several ways. In divorce mediation, the mediator acts as a neutral third party who seeks to help the parties find common ground, but who does not offer advice or make decisions for the spouses. In arbitration, the arbitrator plays a role similar to that of a judge. The arbitrator hears information and arguments from both spouses and their respective attorneys and then makes a decision. The parties are expected to abide by the decision, although in some cases the arbitration agreement may allow for an appeal.
Because arbitration is governed by contracts and consent orders, it is important for your attorney to focus attention on how these are worded and carried out, as well as focusing on the divorce or family law issues to be discussed during the arbitration itself. If you are choosing an attorney to serve as a family law arbitrator, it is important for the arbitrator to pay careful attention to these agreements as well.
Understanding the Family Law Arbitration Process
Many features of arbitration can be arranged to suit the needs of the parties and their particular situations. However, most arbitrations follow a similar process:
While collaborative divorce and mediation take a “negotiation” approach, arbitration is structured more like a formal court trial. The first step will be to choose an arbitrator and create the agreements that will govern the arbitration.
Your attorney can help you select an arbitrator. Both the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers and the North Carolina Board of Legal Specialization maintain lists of North Carolina family law arbitrators. Because the parties participating in the arbitration choose the arbitrator, you have the opportunity to choose one whose experience and approach fits with your particular area of dispute and the goals you hope to achieve.
Just as in a regular trial, arbitration goes through a phase called “discovery” in which the parties exchange information and prepare their presentations to the arbitrator. Your attorney may also discuss one or more motions with the arbitrator and your spouse’s lawyer, setting ground rules for which items may be discussed and for what reasons. Because arbitration is less formal than a court trial, motions are often discussed by telephone, reducing the time and expense required to prepare for the hearing.
During the hearing, your attorney and your spouse’s attorney will present evidence in the form of testimony, documents or other items according to the rules laid out in the arbitration agreement and in any motions that were agreed upon before the hearing began.
Many arbitrations are completed in just one or two days. In a highly complex case with several issues in dispute, separate issues may be scheduled for discussion on separate days. This scheduling allows the arbitrator to think through one question at a time without becoming confused or sidetracked, leading to clearer results in less time.
Once arbitration has produced an agreement the spouses can live with, the final divorce paperwork must still be filed with the court. Your attorney can help ensure that this process succeeds efficiently.
Get Help from a Raleigh Family Law Arbitrator and Arbitration Lawyer
To learn more about arbitration or other divorce options in North Carolina, contact the office of Charles R. Ullman & Associates today.
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