Can a Family Law Court Set Aside a Mediated Agreement?

couple in mediationMany family law courts encourage or require parties involved in divorce or child custody cases to attempt to settle their differences through mediation. Courts tend to prefer when parties are able to reach a mediated agreement as it keeps the many family law cases any given court hears from clogging the court’s calendars with unnecessary hearings. Parties in family law disputes may also see benefits from mediation in that they may be able to resolve their cases more quickly with less expense and greater satisfaction in the outcome since both parties participate in crafting a resolution to their dispute. When a mediated agreement has been reached, the agreement is reduced to writing and presented to the court for approval. However, courts are not obligated to accept these agreements. A court may, in certain circumstances, reject a mediated agreement and refuse to give it any effect.

What is Mediation?

mediation in family courtMediation is a popular form of alternative dispute resolution. As the phrase implies, mediation attempts to help the involved parties resolve their differences before their case is heard by the judge. While the precise rules and procedures governing mediation differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, most mediation sessions are conducted as follows: The parties meet with a mediator, a specially-trained or certified third party whose job is to help facilitate a discussion between the parties about how to resolve the dispute. Mediation may be conducted in one session or spread out over several sessions. While there is no requirement that the parties reach a mediated agreement, the parties must participate in the process in good faith (meaning they must honestly participate in the process and attempt to reach an agreement). If an agreement is reached on some or all of the outstanding issues between the parties, an agreement is drawn up, signed, and presented to the court for approval.

Why Would a Judge Reject a Mediated Agreement?

Most judges will adopt mediated agreements even if the judges themselves do not personally agree with the manner in which the dispute was resolved. This is because courts want to encourage parties to work together and reach mutually-agreeable solutions to their differences. Nonetheless, there are at least two situations in which a court will not follow a mediated agreement.

  1. The agreement reached is not permitted by law. Suppose, for example, that two divorcing spouses with a child in common participate in mediation in an attempt to resolve child custody, child support, and alimony issues. The agreement reached by the parties is that the husband will pay the wife $500 per month in alimony and the wife agrees the husband does not need to pay any child support for the couple’s minor child. The law does not permit one spouse to “waive” child support – parents have a legal obligation to support their children. As a result, a court would not accept the mediated agreement.
  2. The court chooses to exercise its own discretion. This most often occurs in child custody cases, where the court is to enter orders after considering what is in the child’s best interest. A mediated agreement concerning child custody and parenting time arrangements may not be what the court considers to be in the child’s best interest, especially if one parent is given substantially more time with the child than the other. The court may also choose to reject an agreement if the parties’ proposed division of assets is not fair and equitable.

While rare, a court may reject mediated agreements it considers unlawful or where the court chooses to exercise its own jurisdiction. Parties should attempt to make their mediated agreements reasonable and lawful in order to have the greatest chance of having the mediated agreement accepted and approved.