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Making An Early Settlement Offer Key To Reducing The Timeline and Cost of Divorce

Cynthia M. Fox

In my experience, the typical St. Louis divorce takes about 8 months from the initial filing until final resolution. It shouldn't take more than half that amount of time if all the parties...husband and wife, their attorneys, and the judge...would focus on the finish line and what is required to get there.

Before writing more, I must be clear on a couple points. First, I am not advocating that couples rush into a divorce without exploring all the alternatives for saving the marriage. Enhancing and preserving the traditional family of a husband and wife is a worthy societal goal.

Secondly, I know all too well that one spouse may not be as ready as the other to bring the union to an end and that a certain amount of time is needed before their denial can transition to acceptance. As their attorney, I must be compassionate about my client's pain in the present while nurturing and nudging them to prepare for the future.

However, once one spouse files for divorce and it becomes clear that there will be no turning back, then the least painful and the most constructive path to that outcome is usually the shortest road there as well. It can also be the least costly.

I have found that the most effective thing I can do to shorten the distance to the finish line is to pull together a complete proposal for settling the case within the first 60 days and making that proposal to the other side. The benefits are several:
  1. Preparing the settlement offer forces me to know my client and his/her case as much as possible.
  2. It aids my client in transitioning from their immediate emotional state and refocuses them on how they want their future life to be.
  3. Presenting an offer to settle the case and dissolve the marriage usually motivates the other side to focus on what is important to them. Issues will emerge that neither we nor even the other attorney knew about.
  4. And, once the other side is actively engaged in negotiating the terms for settling, they often provide information about my case that my client did not reveal to me. Once, I learned that my client had put the family home up for sale even as we were proposing that it be given to his spouse as part of the settlement.
  5. Exchanging settlement offers early on brings clarity to the landscape sooner. Time literally costs money and the longer it takes to define what each side is concerned about usually means greater expenses for everyone.
Does this approach work every time? Sadly not. Not every attorney gets up to speed quickly on their cases. They fail to respond to our initial settlement offer and when called physically by the judge to participate in a settlement conference, they are unprepared. In fact, many attorneys pay no attention to a case until the judge sets a trial date.

When this happens, the judge has to set the pace. If one side has worked up their case and made a settlement offer, with little reciprocation by the opposing party, the judge should schedule the case for trial on the earliest date that the actively involved attorney can be ready. Undoubtedly, the other side will squeal that they can't be ready on such "short notice", but the judge should be undeterred. The word will get out that if, after a reasonable period of time, you're not even prepared to discuss settling then you better be prepared to go to trial. Some judges would likely resist, fearing it would overload their dockets, but I believe its effects would be the opposite. More cases would settle in order to avoid the pain, high cost and extra work of trial.

For over 25 years Cynthia M. Fox has focused her practice in family law, with a particular emphasis on matters relating to the dissolution of marriage: divorce representation and mediation, child custody and child support. She is a native St. Louis and a graduate of the Washington University School of Law, Class of '73.

Cynthia M. Fox can be contacted by phone at (314)727-4880 or
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