Some months into the divorce process, frequently three to six, the court will schedule you, your spouse and the attorneys for an Early Settlement Program (“ESP”). This is designed to induce divorce settlements. You, your spouse and the attorneys meet with (usually) two ESP panelists who volunteer their time. This will occur in a courthouse conference room. The ESP panelists are experienced divorce attorneys, selected by the county Family Law Committee and/or judges. Your attorneys will informally present your facts to the panel, who will help you come to an agreement by recommending fair compromises. It is not a trial, no formal testimony taken and no record is made.
The panel considers the financial issues such as alimony, child support, property division and counsel fees. Custody issues are not considered. The panel will use the financial information presented to it by the attorneys, including the Case Information Statements, tax returns, appraisals, pay stubs, etc., to make settlement recommendations.
The ESP panel recommends a fair settlement based on what they believe the judge would decide if it went to trial. The ESP panelists will only recommend a settlement and you are not compelled to accept the recommendations. Even if you don’t accept the recommendations, you can and should use it as a starting point further settlement discussions. The ESP panel’s recommendations are confidential and the panel will not report the results to the court.
If the ESP panel’s recommendations are not accepted, the court will usually schedule you and your spouse for mandatory economic mediation. But again, you should use the ESP results as a starting point for more negotiaton, perhaps negating the need for the future-scheduled mediation.
If you settle at on the day of the ESP, you can be granted a divorce on that day. It’s true that most divorce cases are ultimately settled. But the biggest reason to take the ESP seriously, and come to an amicable agreement, it that the result will be yours. Yes, happiness is relative, but divorced parties are always happier with an agreement that they have negotiated than with a result ordered by the court.