In Texas, divorce mediation is a confidential process where a neutral third person (the mediator) helps divorcing couples reach a divorce settlement. The mediator facilitates communication between the parties to promote settlement and understanding between them. Mediation addresses child custody, child support, visitation, spousal support, and property division. The mediator does not act as a judge, attorney, or financial advisor, but assists the spouses in reaching a voluntary agreement.
Denise French founded Divorce Strategies Group, LLC in 2014 and since that time we have continuously guided clients through the divorce and mediation process. We believe mediation is an excellent tool for divorcing couples, especially when there are contentious issues. Our goal is to help you reach a satisfactory agreement with your spouse, without having to endure a lengthy, costly trial. Save time! Save money! Get on with your life.
How does Mediation work in a Texas Divorce?
The goal of mediation is to work through all the issues of your estate and the issues with minor children. An attempt at mediation is strongly recommended and often even required in many Texas counties. In mediation, you will most likely be in separate rooms while your mediator(s) walk in between the rooms. Sometimes, the parties will be in the same room, if they wish to be and it is productive. Without minor children, expect to mediate for a half day. When minor children’s issues are involved, expect to spend an entire day in mediation. At the end of mediation if agreements have been reached a binding, legal document called a Mediated Settlement Agreement or MSA will be signed by everyone. This document is irrevocable and binds your agreements legally. The fight is, in essence, over at this point which typically brings much peace and relief. The MSA is also a tool used to push your agreements through the court system as a judge cannot typically overturn a property drafted MSA.
After the MSA is completed a divorce decree will be drafted by an attorney which reflects the agreements you made in mediation. The divorce decree (which you will review and also need to sign) along with the MSA are presented to the judge in court (or remotely due to COVID-19) and used to finalize your divorce. The mediation document is usually 6 – 10 pages long while your actual divorce decree is 30 – 50 pages long.
Why Should I Use Mediation to Settle our Divorce Conflict?
- Mediation is flexible – While we have a process, we acknowledge every family and every divorce is different.
- Mediation is future oriented – We are going to focus on where you are headed, not where you have been. Everyone in divorce has some type of pain or fear. We understand and we are happy to listen and help you heal. However, in mediation we will focus on the future.
- Mediation works – Mediation has a high success rate, especially when both spouses are open to compromise.
- Your information is protected – Mediation is confidential.
- You and your spouse are in control of the outcome – Your future in not the hands of a judge hearing only a tiny fraction of your life story.
What sets our firm apart?
The founder of Divorce Strategies Group, LLC, Denise French, has been divorced herself and understands what you are going through! Her divorce was costly and long. Sadly, it was also damaging to her family, her finances and her children. She strives to help litigants avoid the heartache her family endured. This is personal for her. Denise is not a lawyer. She is a financial expert in litigation and fully understands divorce finance in Texas.
Denise works alongside several family law attorney mediators. These mediators, along with Denise, will walk you through every aspect of your child issues and your financial issues to help you achieve a win-win solution for your family. Our partner attorney mediators are Denise Khoury of Guajardo, Khoury Family Law and Manny Caiati of Caiati Law & Mediation.
Denise is a Credentialed Advanced Mediator through the Texas Mediator Credentialing Association with hundreds of cases both as a mediator and as a financial expert in mediation.
The decisions you make in mediation will have lasting, lifelong ramifications for your children and/or your lifestyle and financial wellbeing. We have a proven, 7 step process which involves the help of a financial expert and a family lawyer – both of whom are also mediators. Together, this is a place where you can work through all the child custody issues as well as the financial issues without the fight in court and with proper guidance.
Contact Divorce Strategies Group today!
Before you contact a divorce lawyer, call us. Need more information about divorce and mediation? We invite you to contact our office for a complimentary consultation. We are here to help you in every way possible!
The valuation and division of retirement accounts in divorce is more complex than most divorcing couples expect. We frequently see people after the fact who wish they had known better before they signed papers to finalize their estate division. The details are important. Below are four common items to know about before you sign on the dotted line.
1. Does a retirement account only belong to the person whose name is on the title?
What if only one spouse worked for most of the marriage while the other was the primary caretaker for the home and children? If that’s the case, most of the retirement assets are likely only in one spouse’s name. Despite the titling, these retirement assets acquired during the marriage belong to the community estate and are fully subject to division in a divorce. It is common for clients who own retirement accounts to believe they are entitled to the entire account since it’s in their name. However, money earned during the marriage is a marital asset and subject to division in a divorce within a community property state like Texas.
In contrast, retirement assets earned prior to the marriage are typically considered separate assets and not subject to division in the divorce. In addition, the growth on those separate assets during the marriage is considered separate property (but not the income, yes, it gets confusing). For an accurate appraisal of what portion of a retirement account is separate versus and what portion is marital, a separate property accounting must be conducted. The burden of proof is on the person making the separate property claim. All assets, no matter what the title says, belong to each spouse equally if the asset was acquired during the marriage, except for those assets which were inherited or gifted during the marriage or came from a personal injury suit.
2. How will we be taxed if we divide a retirement account?
You are not necessarily taxed on the division of a retirement account. Taxation happens only if you distribute the retirement account outside of the retirement vehicle. For example, if your spouse has a large 401(k) and you divide it during the divorce, no problem. You can move these funds into an IRA for yourself without paying any tax and let it continue to grow tax deferred. The same rules apply if you are dividing an IRA. You only acquire a tax liability when you redeem the funds from the retirement chassy and put them into your bank account or a non-retirement brokerage account.
3. Which retirement assets are best to keep in a divorce?
Not all retirement assets are equal as far as the IRS is concerned, which means what you get to keep in your pocket differs – sometimes substantially- between different retirement accounts! This is a synopsis of the different types of retirement assets we commonly see with divorcing couples in our office. We also provide a discussion of liquidity as having liquid, available cash is king in a divorce.
Pension plans typically rate lowest on the list of assets to obtain because those funds are not liquid today (unless you are at retirement age). Further, each plan has its own rules surrounding availability of the pension funds to the ex-spouse. Some funds mandate you wait for your ex-spouse to retire while others will let you retire on your own timeline after you have reached a certain age which can be anywhere from 50 to 65. Pension plans may also offer a lump sum option at retirement – it just depends on the company or entity offering the plan. There is also the issue of company solvency – will this pension plan even exist when you are retirement age? It is also important to know if you are entitled to assets if your spouse dies before the pension plan begins – some entities don’t pay you at all if your spouse dies before the payout has started, even with a divorce decree.
It is wise to involve a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst or CDFA in cases with a pension as they can help you understand your options and make those phone calls for or with you. Know the rules of your potential pension plan before you sign any binding documents
IRA’s typically rank lower on the scale of available, liquid assets because withdrawals are usually taxed at the owner’s highest marginal tax rate and incur a 10 percent penalty until age 59.5 (barring the exceptions of substantially equal periodic payments for those typically 50 and over, death and disability). There are no divorce exceptions to the penalty as there are in a 401(k) which is why we prefer our clients are awarded the 401(k) assets rather than the IRA assets if there is a choice.
401(k), Profit Sharing Plans and other ERISA-Regulated Plans
ERISA regulated plans (such as 401k’s and Profit Sharing Plans) are one step above the Traditional IRA regarding assets available for liquidity as you can redeem cash from your ex-spouses 401k plan without paying the 10% penalty, but you still must pay taxes. That is a big savings – especially in larger plans. You can save thousands in fees by just taking the 401(k) over the IRA if you are in need of cash from the retirement assets.
The down side is a federally mandated 20% withholding on all cash distributions. For example, if you want $80,000 in cash from your ex-spouses 401k, you’ll need to withdrawal $100,000 as 20% ($20,000 in this example) will automatically be forwarded to the IRS. You are not losing that money – you’d owe it in taxes anyway you are just forced to pre-pay your taxes. If you do not owe the full 20% at tax time you will receive a refund or if you owe more, they will certainly let you know when you complete your taxes the following year. The other negative is 401(k)’s can only be awarded via a Qualified Domestic Relations Order or QDRO. QDRO’s cost an additional fee of $500 – $1,500 and they take time and work to finalize.
ROTH IRA’s are the most advantageous retirement asset for liquidity needs during or after divorce. The principal put into a ROTH IRA can be withdrawn tax and penalty-free at any time for any reason. The earnings on the ROTH IRA are different. The earnings can be subject to taxation and the 10% early withdrawal penalty (before age 59.5) but you are able to take all of the principal before touching the earnings. For example, if you have a ROTH IRA worth $40,000 today which you originally invested 15,000 in; the $15,000 is principal and the other $25,000 is earnings. In this example, you can redeem the $15,000 with zero penalty and zero taxation while the rest can be left alone to grow.
4. Should you consider the value of retirement accounts after taxes when dividing assets in a divorce?
Many attorneys will “tax effect” retirement plans (discounting the account by the recipient’s marginal or effective tax bracket). Left unchecked, the spouse receiving more of the retirement accounts may benefit (possibly unfairly) in negotiations from this practice. However, if your spouse is not playing fairly and trying to stick you with all the retirement accounts while they take all the cash, a tax effecting is in order. Tax effecting can be as simple as taking 20% – 28% off the value of the retirement account and dividing that. Or, it can be as complex as determining your effective tax rate and considering what assets will actually have to be used and tax effecting just those by the actual amount of tax you will pay this year (and possibly projecting out to the next few years). By preparing financial projections, a CDFA can assess the amount and timing of the recipient’s anticipated withdrawals and tax liabilities from retirement accounts.
Questions About Divorce and Retirement Accounts? Let us help. Retirement accounts are complicated, especially in divorce. Understanding tax implications and liquidity are critical in divorce negotiations. You only have one shot to get this right. Ensure you are receiving the settlement that’s best for you by having the right people on your team. Contact Divorce Strategies Group for a complimentary 30 minute phone consultation to discuss your specific needs.
When you are facing divorce life can see overwhelming. To make matters worse, in the midst of emotional turmoil you are asked to make life altering financial decisions. This is tough!! We STRONGLY encourage you to hire a divorce team with experts in each area of needed expertise. An experienced, knowledgeable attorney is critical. Next, if you have financial concerns, it makes sense to hire someone to help you with the financial questions and issues in your divorce. A Certified Divorce Financial Analyst or someone trained and experienced specifically in the areas of divorce finance and tax can save you thousands of dollars in your overall settlement.
We have seen many people come into our offices after the divorce details are finalized only to discover they could have done better or they will lose 30% of what they were awarded to taxes. We don’t want this to happen to those still in the divorce process. Be informed! The following are mistakes we see repeatedly when it comes to divorce.
3. The settlement doesn’t take taxes into effect.
If the old saying, “death and taxes are the only sure thing we have in life” holds true, why would you settle divorce negotiations without knowing the tax implications of your settlement. You are going to be taxed, just know what those taxes will be!
What people often find is the tax burden on their half of the marital assets is significantly higher than their spouse’s. This means their “half” of the assets are worth significantly less than they thought! It’s also important to consider when you will be using the assets you were awarded. For example, what’s worth more – $100,000 in an IRA account or $80,000 in a savings account? Well, it depends! What is your tax bracket and how much cash do you need today? If you need cash now, you are better off taking the $80,000 in a savings account. The $100,000 in an IRA is going to have taxes and possibly penalties taken from it so in the end the $100,000 is probably only worth about $65,000 or $75,000. If you don’t need this money for years, the $100,000 in an IRA will probably be better as it will grow tax deferred for many years and will be able to compound on itself quicker than a taxable $80,000 in savings.
2. Pensions are split 50/50 but no one knows what that really means.
Over and over and over I see divorce decrees that order pensions split 50/50 but no one has any idea what will actually happen. When do you start collecting? How much money can you collect when the pension begins? Is there an option to take a lump sum?
Did you inquire about a separate interest Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO) where you can take the funds on your own timeline? Are you subject to your ex-spouses retirement wants or do you have a say in when the funds begin? Will there be a cost of living increase each year? What if you or your spouse dies before you start collecting? Will it still pay you?
Pensions are complex financial tools with variables many do not consider. In addition, the devil is in the details with the pension plans. Know what you are getting and your options!! If you have a pension you really need a financial expert on your team who understands pensions and QDRO’s so you can make informed decisions.
1. The biggest mistake – keeping a house you can’t afford.
As a woman I understand becoming emotionally attached to a home – this is where my kids have grown up and where we made many happy memories. This spot on the stairs or the place by the front door is where we took pictures every year on the first day of school. This is where I want my kids to come home to when they are grown with their own children. I get it!! It’s tough to leave the marital home if you have such strong emotional ties. However, time and time again my older divorcing couples are told by their adult children – don’t stay in the house!! We don’t care. We just want you to be financially healthy and strong.
As a financial expert, the first thing I’m going to ask my divorcees to do is create a monthly budget. What does it cost to live in this house? I have witnessed where one or two years down the road the spouse who “won the house” has run out of cash and realized that they can’t sell a window to put food on the table, they can’t refinance because now they don’t have enough income, and they have no choice but to sell. Further, the selling costs are about 8% of the sale – all of which could have been split 50/50 with a spouse if the house had been sold during the pendency of the divorce.
The sum this up, please realize you don’t know what you don’t know. Bring in the right experts for your divorce to make sure you are smart, you are informed, and you make the best decisions you can with all the information! Don’t go this alone. As we say at Divorce Strategies Group, “You only have one chance to get it right!” Let us help. Call today for a complimentary consultation to discuss your situation and let us help you start on the right path.
Let’s face it. Change is tough for many people and divorce changes just about every facet of your life. Divorce can often test one’s ability to handle change to an extreme. Some people struggle more than others with change. They fight it, avoid it, fear it, and sometimes feel guilty about it. These notions would make anyone want to keep things as normalized as possible. One would think only adrenaline junkies and dysfunctional people would want to disrupt what could be a perfectly normal situation. However, change can be very positive and powerful, especially if you have been in an unhappy or abusive marriage. Here are five truths in my life I’ve experienced with change. Hopefully this will help readers cope with their own life changes.
1. Change is inevitable
While divorce may not be inevitable, relationships will evolve. Whether you cling to what you have or long for something more, change is unavoidable. Nothing can or will stay the same. You have power when it comes to change. Your actions or reactions to change will determine how positive or negative the change is. Get comfortable with the notion of change as part of the evolution of life and stop resisting.
My divorce meant not only losing a spouse, but losing his entire family, the life I had envisioned and dreams I had of being a stay at home mom. Oddly, I have a relationship with my ex-spouses family today. It’s different than it was, but it’s good. I also had the chance to be a “stay at home” mom for a year, and I found I really didn’t like it. I love to work and I’m a better mom because of it. I own two businesses today which I never would have had the chance to own if I had stayed in my marriage – he would not have given me the freedom to explore these opportunities. What was the absolutely worst thing in 2007 is a gift today.
2. Change helps your brain stay healthy
Science suggest our brains need new and varied problems to work on. When our minds aren’t working out problems, solving mysteries, or figuring things out we can become weak. Change is one of the best ways to keep our brains healthy. This means our lifespan will be healthier, and our mind will not be as susceptible to diseases like dementia. It’s good for your brain to embrace the change in your life as a puzzle you can solve.
I certainly fought the divorce in the beginning, and I went through the stages of grief for at least a year if not longer. No doubt, there was a grieving process to walk through. However, my divorce also brought about new changes which were fun and unexpected, like meeting new friends and having a fun, loving social environment. I was also able to thrive with my career after the divorce which meant learning a lot of new things and experiencing new challenges. When I was no longer subject to emotional abuse I was able to really thrive and grow.
3. Change creates maturity
Sometimes change comes with a price tag. Sometimes change comes with a penalty. Sometimes change requires risk, and sometimes change is forced on us. No matter how change occurs, it causes us to grow. From learning we are tougher than we realized and having to do some difficult things – change creates maturity.
When my divorce was over I made a list of gifts. To my suprise, I had three pages of small, single spaced gifts. Many of them had to do with personal strength and fortitude. I’m so much stronger today. While I certainly would not have chosen this path voluntarily, I’m so grateful today for it.
4. Change teaches you to overcome fear and anxiety
Whether stepping out towards change in doubt or being pushed into the unknown without your consent, change can be scary. The devil we know is easier to manage than the one we don’t. Once the fears are faced, they are often scarier in theory than reality. Change teaches you to overcome fear and anxiety as you learn new coping skills or how to talk yourself through fear.
I was a single mom of a 2 year old child when my divorce was final – that is big change. It was scary. Looking back I’m convinced there is no stronger force than a parent protecting their child. Being a single mom of a young child drove me to bigger and better things with my career. It also lead me to be a better mom and person. I no longer fear financial insecurity (for the most part). I no longer fear being alone. I no longer fear many things – all because of what I went through.
5. Change gives you choices
Once the spirit of change is validated and embraced, change can become part of your normal routine. If you choose something and don’t like it, that isn’t the end of the line. Change things again! From changing your coffee order to the brand of cereal your family eats this week, change can be fun. From picking a new wall color to a new genre of book to read, change can be exciting. From changing where you volunteer your time or which organization you donate to, change can matter to more people.
When my divorce was final I made big changes to my house – I repainted rooms, moved furniture around, rearranged the cabinets and made changes to the yard. These small changes made a big difference. Small things like which cabinet your plates are in can help facilitate change in your head and heart which can give you courage for more change. In my first marriage I really wanted multiple children. As a child I was much younger than my siblings and as a result raised as an only child. I did not like it. I decided very young I would have no children or multiple children – but not an only child! Even though my first husband and I had decided on two or three children when we married, after our first (and only) child was born he decided he didn’t want any more. Well, guess what. When I remarried it was to someone with three young children, and now we have five!! Talk about an evolution of change. It is a beautiful blended crazy mess which this extrovert absolutely loves.
There are many truths about change – some scary and some not so much. Embrace the concept of change, and it will lead to enjoying the realities of change. We at Divorce Strategies Group are here to help you navigate changes from married to single. Schedule a strategy session or call us at 281-210-0057 to schedule your first mediation session today. No matter what your situation we strive to help our clients walk through divorce with confidence, strength and courage!
If love is a battlefield, then co-parenting teens is a battlefield with landmines. Teenagers can swing from adolescent to grown-up feelings (and back again) in the snap of your fingers. This confusing age is hard enough already for them to navigate. Throw in the challenges of being a teen with divorced parents and watch the fun multiply!
Luckily, it doesn’t have to be fraught with turmoil and anxiety all the way. Knowing where some of the landmines are hidden, or what to do to avoid them outright, will make this period smoother for everyone.
The thing to remember is that right now, teens are becoming independent and striving to express themselves. They will have their own ideas about how things should be, and those ideas may go against what you’re thinking. At the end of the day, I know you want to keep them safe and happy. With these suggestions, you can navigate the challenges you may face as you co-parent your teen through divorce.
3 Things to Remember when Co-Parenting Teens
It’s important to recognize that teens are trying to figure out what they want and who they’re becoming. With that comes lots of hormones. Sometimes it’s easier for teens to mask shame, sadness, and loneliness they could be experiencing with anger. Other times, kids think they’re angry when really they’re feeling those deeper, more vulnerable feelings. At any rate, it’s your job as a parent to be there for them with support and compassion.
Home is where the safety is. Home should always be a safe haven for teens. Yes, they want independence, but that doesn’t mean they don’t also need safety and stability. Make sure you establish a family-first feeling. Let them know whatever is happening in the outside world, their parents both will support and love them.
Teens will have a different idea about how things are going to work. Teens, especially the ones on the cusp of having more independence with access to a license, job, and friends or activities outside the home (ie: that sweet spot of 14-16) will have a lot of ideas about how they want things to work. It’s important to listen to them and meet them where you can. Work as a team with your teens and your ex as you co-parent so they feel respected and heard. If you tend to blanket them with your opinions, they could feel like you have no regard for their wishes and act out. They want to know you’re working with your ex to support and nurture them, even though they seem to be pulling away.
Teens just want to be heard. Sometimes, it could be a challenge to decipher between normal teenage angst and when your kid is really in trouble. Add to that the reality that your teenager may not want to share their feelings with you for whatever reason. Perhaps they wish to avoid confrontation or they don’t know how to express themselves. When you co-parent your teen through a divorce, remember that your kid just wants to be heard. When they talk, listen.
4 Things to Consider in your Parenting Plan as you Co-Parent Through Divorce
It’s challenging to tell your teen what they’re going to do, but you are doing this for a good reason (safety, making sure your teen becomes a self-reliant adult, and so on). Communicate that with them! Let them know you aren’t just making rules because you’re power-hungry; you have a good reason behind that.
Having a parenting plan will help with this. It could also be a struggle at first as you establish new routines for your kids as they turn into teens. Remember: your teens don’t want to be told what to do.
Make them feel like they have a say in it, especially as they get older. Once they hit a certain age, they can communicate their wishes with both of you instead of you telling them what they want. Respect those wishes and honor them as much as you can.
Kids will have time constraints and want control over their own schedule.
In your parenting plan, consider that your kids will have new and different time constraints. Teens are busy bees between work, school, friends, and other activities like jobs and volunteering.
Have a plan in place for time for handling scheduling conflicts. When possible, make sure both you and your ex show up at events like sporting games, rewards ceremonies, and the like so your teens can see you’re both showing up for them. Not only will your teen still feel like an important member of the family, but you’ll also get to spend time with your teen and not miss out on activities that are important to them.
How will you navigate chores and other household responsibilities? When kids who are younger experience a divorce, it’s very important to keep a consistent routine between both parents’ households. That gives them a sense of stability and normalcy. Things like bedtimes, chores, and time outs or rewards should stay the same.
As kids get older, their responsibilities will change and they may not need that consistency between both houses. However, what they do need is to know the rules so they can play by them. Communicate your expectations clearly if there is a difference between households. Make sure they understand what happens if they break curfew or get in trouble. I’d recommend that the basic structure remains the same between households (ie: expectations, consequences, and rewards), while the specifics may vary.
What happens when your teen starts to become more involved with friends and begins to date? You may not want to think about your kid growing up and leaving the nest, but they will. As you’re co-parenting teens, you have to realize they are teens. They will have friends and they will want to date.
What happens if their boyfriend or girlfriend wants to sleepover (or they want to stay at their house)? This is another area I’d advise consistency. That way they can’t play you and your ex off each other. No one wants to hear, “Dad lets me!” or have them take advantage of you because the rules around friends and paramours are more lax at your house.
Who will have the final say? Teens will fight you on things, plain and simple. That said there are important considerations to make, like what happens if your teen is sick, wants to get a piercing, decides to join a branch of military service, wants to purchase a car, claims they’ll drop out of school… the list goes on, really. In that instance, these are big discussions that should be considered carefully. When you’re co-parenting your teen, it’s assumed that decisions are mutually agreed upon with both you and your ex involved. The reality is that some parents may think they should have the final word, especially if they are the ones paying for most of it.
Having a discussion about whose decision is final before these issues come up (in other words, when the tensions aren’t running high) will help you stay cool and focus on the matter at hand when it occurs. Will there be times when mom has the final say over dad or vice versa? In what situation does your teen get to make their own decision? Just like who has the final say, think about who pays. You may be sharing financial responsibilities, but what about your teen’s input? If they want a car, do they pay for it or do you? Whose responsibility is it to replace a broken iPad? What if they want a cell phone? Put that language in the parenting plan.
A Final Word About Parenting Plans
As your teen is navigating their own changes (and at times feeling like the center of the world), you, too, must navigate changes. It’s different when you’re co-parenting teens than when you’re co-parenting adolescents. Parenting schedules will have to be addressed. Discussions about school, friends, and time conflicts will have to take place. Consequences, structure, and what you present a united front on will be a point to consider. As you’re co-parenting teens, these issues (and more) will come up. So, the more clarity you can provide in your parenting plan, the better. Make sure you actually look at your parenting plan, too. It won’t do any good if you never use it. Help your teen take you seriously by giving them new structure and boundaries as they get older. It will make a huge difference when you have to make decisions for your teen on behalf of you and your ex.
We understand co-parenting teens because we have navigated co-parenting 2 who are grown and 2 more who are almost ready to leave the nest. We, personally, have sought after the help of professional counselors and therapists. For a list of who we recommend call us at 281-210-0057 and also visit us regularly to check out our latest blog on various divorce related issues.