In California, judges can order mandatory divorce settlement conferences. These conferences are held between the parties and a court-appointed mediator or judge, and all parties and their attorneys must attend. The settlement conference gives the parties a final opportunity to settle before going to trial and is typically scheduled 30 days before trial. Judges are especially likely to order these conferences when child custody is in dispute because they allow parents to come to an agreement they can both tolerate.
Prior to the conference, each party is required to file a brief outlining the facts of the case, the arguments they intend to make, an itemized list of relevant financial information and the requested settlement agreement. If you are represented by an attorney, your attorney will file this brief for you. Your attorneys may meet with one another either before the conference or at the beginning of the conference to discuss possible settlements.
Mediated Settlement Conferences
If your settlement conference is through a mediator, you will follow the mediator's procedures for the settlement conference. The mediator may contact you before the conference or may explain procedures at the beginning of the conference. Typically, both parties meet and present their sides at the beginning of the conference. The mediator may then separate the parties. Mediators may point out to each party the weaknesses of their arguments, potential liabilities and possible outcomes. Parties may then begin to negotiate potential settlements and are required to remain at the conference until either a settlement is reached or until the mediator feels that no settlement is possible. In the latter case, the conference is likely to last all day.
Judicial Settlement Conferences
Your conference may be in front of a judge or judicial officer. In this case, each party will present his or her side and the judge may ask questions based on the law. The parties may remain in the same room the entire time or the judge may separate the parties. Judicial settlement conferences are frequently more law-oriented. The judge will be less interested in the facts of the case than she is in what the law says about the facts. These conferences are much more similar to a trial than conferences with a mediator. However, you will not be able to call witnesses.
If you reach a settlement during the conference, the settlement agreement will be drafted either by the attorneys or by the mediator. After that, a judge will review the settlement agreement and sign an order. The settlement then becomes binding. Occasionally, parties are only able to settle some matters. For example, they may come to an agreement about child custody but not about division of property. In these cases, the partial settlement is binding but a judge will consider the other issues at trial.