Negotiations in divorce can take all sorts of forms, depending on what’s appropriate under the specific circumstances. In a lot of cases, negotiations start out in the form of letters. We draft a separation agreement (or the other side does, depending on who was hired first), and then we negotiate back and forth in writing. In some cases, this is successful. In others, a face to face meeting becomes necessary. In cases where a divorce hasn’t been formally filed and we aren’t mandated to have a judicial settlement conference (a settlement conference presided over by a retired judge), we often schedule a four way settlement conference.
A four way settlement conference is pretty much the same as a judicial settlement conference, it’s just not presided over by a judge. Judicial settlement conferences are often court mandated; most of the time, four way settlement conferences are an option that the attorneys and the parties elect to participate in in an effort to avoid filing a contested divorce. Four way settlement conferences, like judicial settlement conferences, often result in reaching an agreement—though, of course, not always.
Any time we’re talking about negotiating a separation agreement in a Virginia divorce case, there’s a chance that our negotiations won’t be successful. We can’t force the other side to reach an agreement (though that does not mean that you’re stuck married to him, either). Still, in many cases, coming face to face to discuss the issues can often go a long way towards helping the parties reach an agreement sooner rather than later. It’s easier to bat ideas around when you’re talking together than when you have to wait for letters or emails or faxes to go back and forth.
What can I expect to happen in a four way settlement conference?
A four way settlement conference is pretty straightforward. Each party is there with his or her attorney (which is why it’s a four way), and they sit together and try to hash out an agreement. Most of the time, these conferences happen with both parties in the same room. (That’s a little different than a judicial settlement conference, where the judge often goes back and forth between the parties, who are seated separately in different rooms.) Of course, if, in your particular situation, you’d rather not come face to face with your husband, that’s something that is possible to work out, too. If you want to take a break to discuss things with your attorney, that’s fine, too. We can be really flexible.
The most important thing is to come to the settlement conference with an open mind. Be prepared to sign an agreement the same day, if you’re able to reach an agreement that you’re both comfortable with. Ideally, an agreement IS reached the same day—and then your case is over, until you’ve been separated for a year and can file for your uncontested divorce. (Doesn’t that sound awesome?!)
…But I’m not sure what we even have to divide! Am I ready for a four way settlement conference?
Most of the time, the parties share documents before the settlement conference.
Whatever you’re unsure of (how much is in his retirement account, what his actual income is, what kind of credit card debt he has amassed, etc), we can request documents. Without filing for divorce, we can’t conduct formal discovery, but this kind of information is very commonly shared before a four way settlement conference would take place. Your attorney doesn’t want to go into the four way settlement conference blindly, either, so you can bet that she will be pushing for getting those documents. We’ve got to know what’s there in order to divide things accurately between the two of you!
Will the court hold anything against me later that I say in the four way settlement conference?
No! That’s part of the beauty of a four way settlement conference (really, of any settlement negotiations). Nothing that you say, and no offer that you make, can be held against you later in court. You’ve probably also noticed in correspondence between your attorney, even before the settlement conference, that everything is made “without prejudice.” That basically means the same thing—you can feel free to talk openly, and to make suggestions, because the other side won’t be able to hold what you’ve said against you later on in court. That’s the way it is for all settlement negotiations, and it applies to four way settlement conferences, too. So, you can speak freely, you can make reasonable suggestions, and nothing that you’ve said will be held against you later. A four way settlement conference is, in many ways, a safe space and your negotiations are protected by law.
…But aren’t four way settlement conferences expensive? It sounds expensive.
I guess it depends on how you define “expensive.” Yes, when you come to a four way settlement conference, you’ll pay your attorney’s hourly rate for the amount of time that you and she meet or negotiate on your case. But, really, it’s no more expensive than anything else an attorney does; based on your retainer agreement, you’re likely already paying (and paying the same—her hourly rate) for the work that she does, whenever she’s working on your case.
Because four way settlement conferences are specific, targeted negotiations designed to result in a finished agreement, you could also argue that, although it might be expensive in terms of the costs on your case in a single day, it’s a good use of your money—rather than sending letter after letter back and forth.
It sort of depends on your perspective. I think settlement conferences are a great use of my client’s money (or else I wouldn’t schedule them)—though there’s no denying that the expense of one day of negotiations can be fairly high in some cases.
What if we reach an agreement… And then he changes his mind later?
That’s part of the reason why we try to get separation agreements signed in the settlement conference. Once we’ve reached an agreement, there’s really no going back. Once we’ve shaken hands on the agreement, you shouldn’t think that terms of your agreement can be changed.
As far as most attorneys are concerned, if their clients try to back out later, most of the time the attorney with withdraw from the case. At that point, an attorney feels like her word has been given and, if it’s broken, she can’t go in with the negotiations in good faith. (After all, how could you trust her word again moving forward?) It’s a way of showing opposing counsel that the deal we made was, on our part, made in good faith and intended to be executed. She can’t force your husband to sign the agreement later if he has changed his mind, but she can withdraw—and I’ve seen that happen.
To avoid that situation, we try to get agreements signed on the same day. It’s normal to have a little bit of buyer’s remorse, but by having your attorney there you can be sure that you’ve gotten a good agreement. You won’t get everything, of course—but that’s the nature of a separation agreement—but you’ll get a reasonably fair share and you’ll avoid going to court.
I always meet with my clients before a settlement conference just so that we can be sure that we’re both on the same page in terms of what my client is hoping to receive. Obviously, I know what’s reasonable under the law, and what I think a court would award—but I let my clients steer the negotiations in some senses, because their preference matters and I want a final agreement that reflects their biggest priorities.
If you’re facing a four way settlement conference, you’ll want to talk to your attorney and have an idea of what to expect beforehand. That’s normal! Hopefully, this article helps you feel prepared. If, for whatever reason, you’re uncomfortable, you should talk to your attorney—or, in egregious cases, maybe even look for another. If you need a second opinion, give our office a call at (757) 425-5200 before you sign anything in a four way settlement conference.