An Interview with Don Sinkov

Chris:   Mediation is a golden opportunity to put aside acrimony and advance the common good when divorce or separation is imminent, or when conflict arises anywhere and disputes must be settled. Today we’re delighted to have divorce mediator Don Sinkov with us to tell us about his mediation practice and how the mediation choice was a wise one for him. Welcome, Don.
Don:    Nice to be here.
Chris:   Why don’t you give us a brief idea what your background is like.
Don:    I’ve been involved in mediation and arbitration for over 20 years. In 2003 I took a training in divorce mediation and understood why there was a tremendous need for divorce mediation for couples going through the divorce process. I have a number of friends who had been through horrible divorces and it prompted me to take the training, and since 2003, I’ve been specializing in just divorce cases.
Chris:   You have been mediating for about how long, and how many cases have you done?
Don:    I’ve been mediating since 2003. I’ve mediated about 1500 cases.
Chris:   That’s an incredible schedule. Did you work with the courts there?
Don:    I’m currently on the Roster of Neutrals for Westchester Supreme Court. They have a new mediation program that they started.
Chris:   “Roster of Neutrals,” they call it?
Don:    Yes.
Chris:   Okay. Let’s say that, just for the sake of the audience experiencing what your process is like, see if you can go through a minute or two of describing [what happens when] a client comes to you for mediation.  What can they expect to have happen and in what order of events? If there’s an intake of some kind and then go from there.
Don:    Generally, what I do …
Chris:   General experience, of course.
Don:    I do it a couple of different ways. What I’ve learned over the years is that different couples need different things. I will say “if you like, you can come in for 20 minutes or a half an hour. I won’t charge you. We’ll decide whether this is appropriate for mediation.” I’ll come in and I’ll get a feeling for the husband and wife and what their relationship is, what the dynamic is when they’re in the room with me, how they talk to each other, the eye contact, the body language. All the signals that indicate how their relationship is going, and if there’s something there that becomes very obvious. If it is appropriate for mediation, I’ll give them a list of documents they need to provide and they’ll bring those documents into the first mediation session, and then we’ll get right down to work.
Chris:   So you’re kind of evaluating the couple on the fly as they go, in terms of how they represent themselves and their needs.
Don:    Oh, absolutely.
Chris:   And have them explain to you how they feel about what they need and want?
Don:    I’ll tell them what the process is. I’ll tell them how much it costs. I’ll tell them how much time it takes. I’ll tell them different ways to get divorced in New York. I’ll question them as far as have they had any kind of settlement talks with each other before? Do they have an idea how they might want to divide things? Have they already come to a decision? Some clients come in and they’ve already decided everything, but they need to hear from me, and I’m obligated to tell them, what’s separate property, what’s marital property, and how the court might look at a long-term marriage of a certain duration, and whether or not maintenance can be paid, or should be paid, and how that figures into the whole picture.
Chris:   How would maintenance … Well, child support is a particular percentage of gross income on how many children you have in a family, a client may have. But maintenance is a floating item.
Don:    Maintenance is a very difficult subject to address because there are 14 factors in maintenance, including factor 13, which is anything else the court deems relevant. It’s a difficult conversation to have, but pretty much the golden rule is if you have a 20-year marriage and there is a tremendous disparity of income, and relative position of the husband and wife, and where are they going to be 5 years from now economically, and all the other factors that goes into this. There very well might be what they call durational maintenance, maintenance of a fixed amount of time in a fixed amount, so it doesn’t look like equitable distribution, which you also have to be careful of.
Chris:   Do you find that, regarding the same subject, that the amount of time is very transient? Nobody really has any fix on what that time is. Do you find your clients are asking what time is appropriate?
Don:    Yeah and one of the things I’ve learned is the purpose of maintenance is to get the non-working spouse back in the workforce and be self-supporting. So how long will that take and how much money will that take?
Chris:   What do you think is most important that a client looking for a prospective mediator would want to have be known? What would you like to tell them, more importantly than most other things?
Don:    First, in choosing a mediator, since there is no licensure in New York, mediators are not licensed. Choose an accredited mediator. Mediator accreditation through the New York State Council on Divorce Mediation is the highest standard in New York right now, so choose an accredited mediator. That means they’ve gone through some level of testing and their agreements have been looked at and they have more than 250 hours of face-to-face mediation time. Get somebody who’s experienced and understands the whole process. You can do that by calling them up on the phone and talking to them and asking them questions.  How long they’ve been doing this.  How many cases they’ve done.  Have they done police and firemen pensions.  Do they understand military pensions.  Your specific set of circumstances. Is this somebody you can establish a rapport with and work with because you’re going to have to work with them. Somebody you feel comfortable with.
Chris:   That’s wise. I’m going to ask you a couple of questions now that are rapid fire kind of questions. You don’t have to give them a lengthy explanation, but it’s a comparative between the legal system and divorce, and the private mediation practice, and what their differences are. I just want you to comment on, for instance, a couple abdicates decision making to a lawyer, or a judge when they’re in court, and the couple takes responsibility for their own decisions when they’re in mediation.
Don:    Okay, so how do you think somebody who doesn’t know your family or your children or your living situation is going to make those decisions regarding your family and you?
Chris:   The communication between a couple is discouraged when you’re in court, and the communication is the basis that decisions are made when you’re in mediation.
Don:    The couple is in the driver’s seat. When I do a mediation with them, I’ll put them in the ballpark. I’ll tell them, “Here are different scenarios you can choose, but this is your money, your life, your family, your children. You should be the one making these decisions, not somebody else.”
Chris:   Children suffer adverse effects of the battles between the parents while they’re in court, and children benefit as a prime focus of a mediation. Good parental relationships are fostered and that’s part of the mediation process. We hold them at a different level. We hold the kids at a higher level.
Don:    Sure. It’s about cooperating. How can you cooperate to become better parents? How can you cooperate so that each of you can share as much time with the children as possible to continue your parenting role? How can you least disrupt the children’s lives and become good parents?
Chris:   In terms of learning process, what you’ve learned when you’re in court and what you’ve learned in mediation, in court there’s no new negotiation communication. There’s none of it. Whereas, in mediation, there’s problem solving and negotiation is ongoing. There’s a lot more learning in that process wouldn’t you say?
Don:    Yeah, I had a case in supreme court where, two years into the case, I was handed the case by a judge on the one day a year called “mediation settlement day.” I went into court and I got everybody in the room, and I asked the husband and wife when we first started, “When was the last time you spoke to each other?” And they said, “About a year and a half ago.” I said, “You know what? Now’s a good time to start talking to each other. What do you think is fair?” And they started talking to each other. Six hours later we settled the case.
Chris:   That’s so true. Also, what about the cost factors? There seems to be a huge difference between what’s cost related in [the] litigation process [and it] is a minuscule amount in mediation process.
Don:    Absolutely. It’s a fraction. You’re not paying two attorneys. You’re not paying a law guardian. You don’t have a litigative process where the average turn around from the beginning to end of a case is two, three, four, five, seven years. You can imagine billable hours for that number of years, how much money you’re talking about. If somebody sees me for two or three mediation sessions, and my attorneys prepare the separation agreement, and I have somebody that files the divorce papers for them and everybody gets paid directly – there are no middlemen in the process. This is a streamlined process designed to save you money.
Chris:   Designed to have them create it. Thank you very much, Don Sinkov. I appreciate it.

Do Lawyers Have a Role in Mediation?

So, if you come in and there is very little money to divide, very little debt, you don’t own a home, you have no pensions, you have no children, there’s very little for a lawyer to review. When things get more complicated, your assets or your home, maybe pension plans, maybe distribution of a large amount of debt, maybe businesses, I would advise you to go to an attorney to have the agreement reviewed. The terms are a little more complicated, there are decisions that need to be made.

It should be made clear to the attorney that their role isn’t to negotiate the terms of your agreement, but rather to review the agreement with you, make suggestions, write a single page of suggestions or comments and then have you bring it back to mediation, and then you decide whether you want to implement those changes or not.

At the mediation session, we will review the agreement, discuss the lawyer’s changes, and see if we really want to make those changes. There is no statutory requirement for an attorney to review the agreement before you sign it. However the more complicated your assets are, the more difficult your case is, attorney review might be something that’s a good idea and, in the long run, might prove to be something that’s well worth the cost and the effort it takes.


Lawyers Go to Mediators for Divorce

Hi, this is Don Sinkov, YourDivorceMediator.com. In a recent blog I wrote, “That’s What Lawyers Do!”, referring [to the fact that] a lot of my clients are lawyers … judges, lawyers … they come to me to get divorced, which is always interesting ‘cause I’m not an attorney.  I’m a divorce mediator. And having them come to me really says a lot. It says a lot about what they know about litigation and the divorce process. And that’s if they go to litigation, that’s going to take a long time, be very costly.

Instead they come to me, a mediator, to negotiate the terms of their settlement agreement, then we file the action for divorce for them. And they’re usually very satisfied, and we get a lot of referrals from former clients, attorneys and judges.

If you’re interested in learning more about this, read my blog “That’s What Lawyers Do!”.

Thanks.


Divorce Lawyers *WARNING*!

Hi, this is Don Sinkov at YourDivorceMediator.com. The title of this week’s blog was “Why Divorce Lawyers Should Come with a Warning.”  No, not all divorce lawyers, but certainly a certain number of them. You know which ones, the ones that will promise you the moon and deliver a lot less.

This email [in the blog article] was a reprint at the request of a client. After what we thought was a successful mediation, the wife refused to sign the agreement. She consulted with an attorney, the attorney promised her a lot more in the settlement. Fast forward a year, they’ve burned through a total of $150,000 worth of litigation expenses, and they are nowhere, other than very unhappy and a lot of legal bills.

If you want to learn more about this blog, read “Why Divorce Lawyers Should Come with a Warning Label.”


Can Divorce Agreements Be Changed?

Hi, this is Don Sinkov at YourDivorceMediator.com. This week’s question is, “Can you change a divorce agreement once it’s signed?” The answer is “yes”.  You can create a separate contract. You can create an addendum. You can modify the terms of your existing agreement. Changes sometimes happen in your life necessitating a redoing of the terms of your agreement, at least some of them. The rest of the agreement will remain intact.


Real Parents or Partee Parents?

Hi, this is Don Sinkov at YourDivorceMediator.com. Recently, I wrote a blog entitled “Real Parent or Paaarrr-teeeee Parent?” that refers to the custodial parent and the noncustodial parent. The children spend the majority of time with the custodial parent – that’s the parent the children live with. The other parent, the noncustodial parent, spends less time with the children and sometimes feels like when they’re with the children, whether driven by guilt or feelings of, “Gee, they don’t live with me anymore. How could I be a friend to them?” miss the point.

The point is your job is to be a parent. Your job isn’t to be the party parent, the entertaining parent. Your job is to be a real parent, and that means sharing the school projects, the dioramas, the staying up late, making sure their assignments get done, supporting them, and doing the work with them. This creates a parent-child relationship that’s healthy, that sets parameters, and that’s what children need when they grow. They need their parents to be parents, not to be their friends. If you’re interested in reading more about this, please go to my blog “Real Parent or Paaarrr-teeeee Parent?


Net Worth Statements Explained

Hi, this is Don Sinkov at YourDivorceMediator.com. My second blog this week was “Why Net Worth Statements are Stupid.”

Okay, just my opinion, but also the opinion of almost every lawyer I’ve spoken to. When I asked them why they do it, they say, “Well, it’s a court requirement,” and I understand that. Judges have to have information upon which to base their rulings.

Net worth statements are notoriously inaccurate. Sometimes their projection is based on best guess of what a budget is going to be, items in a budget that were maybe a past expense or a future anticipated expense, but not a current expense. I don’t do that.

During the mediation process that I do, I ask you to bring in actual statements from the lending institution: the bank, the credit card company. I want to see what your real expenses are and what your budgets are. I ask you to bring in your checkbooks, we go through check stubs. We’ll do an economic analysis of where you are, what your debt is, and then make decisions based on that. These are the real numbers.

That’s why I think net worth statements are stupid.


Child Support Calculations in New York

Hi, this is Don Sinkov at yourdivorcemediator.com. I’m here today to talk to you about child support, and hopefully clear up some questions that I often get. First, is the formulaic calculation of child support. Your gross income times the applicable percentage for the number of children you have. 17% for 1 child, 25% for 2, 29% for three, 31% for 4, 35% for 5.

In addition to the formulaic calculation, there are 3 mandatory add-ons. They are childcare, healthcare, and educational expenses. You each would be obligated to pay prorated shares of childcare for your children, so while you both are working or seeking employment, you would discuss and come to an agreement on who the child care provider would be, and then pay prorated shares of the childcare costs.

Additionally, healthcare. Whoever is covering the children with healthcare insurance would continue to cover the children, but each parent would be obligated to pay prorated shares of the children’s healthcare costs. Educational expenses, if the children are in private school. If there are educational expense associated with public school, you would each be obligated to pay prorated shares of those educational expenses. While there is no obligation to pay for college, statutory obligation that is, a lot of parents put on the minimum obligation in the agreement, what we call the SUNY clause, capped at the State University of New York tuition rate.

There are also discretionary expenses. Discretionary expenses are sports, dance, music lessons, martial arts lessons, activities that children are involved in. During the marriage, a certain level is established, and you would be obligated to maintain that standard of living that the children enjoyed during the marriage, after the marriage, by paying your prorated share of discretionary expenses. I hope that clears up some questions about child support. If you have any further questions, please email me at Info@YourDivorceMediator.com, or go to my website YourDivorceMediator.com.