The Superior Courts in Arizona offer an often overlooked alternative to resolving marital disputes and divorce. The Court's Conciliation Services provides free counseling to many couples who are legally married. When one spouse believes that counseling could help save the relationship or get them through their current domestic impasse, then marriage counseling may be offered. There is no requirement that a divorce already be pending. In fact, conciliation counseling is available when either spouse wants to attempt reconciliation of the couple's differences or attempt to resolve the couple's disputes, regardless of whether a divorce, legal separation, or annulment action has been filed with the family court. Conciliation Services is quick to point out that they do not provide the kind of marriage counseling required for a covenant marriage and they do not provide mental health therapy. What we are discussing today is the process of assisting couples in identifying key issues and determining whether they would like to use other services, such as mediation, to resolve and negotiate their issues. In Mohave County, for example, free marital counseling is offered through its Mediation Center and helps the couple negotiate options to divorce, separation, and annulment. The facilitators "assist couples in identifying whether they want to seek such services and in negotiating details regarding such services." Marital Counseling Conciliation counseling is an option for the couple that wants to explore the possibility of reconciliation. The first step toward marriage counseling is filing a "Petition for Conciliation Counseling" with the court clerk — this is a request for counseling services. Only one spouse need file the petition and request the service. Conciliation Services makes a determination on whether it will take action on the request for the marital counseling program. If the request is accepted, then both spouses will be required to attend at least one marriage counseling session. To file a counseling petition when the couple already has an ongoing family law case, then the divorce, legal separation, or annulment case number is included in the request. The counseling request sets forth the existence of a dispute between the spouses and asks the Court to help facilitate a reconciliation of the marriage or, if that is not possible, then perhaps a settlement between the spouses which resolves the disputed issue. These scheduled sessions are facilitated by family counseling professionals and are conducted in a private and confidential setting. The couples are seen together by the conciliation counselor, who is a neutral third party. In general, members of the conciliation services clinical staff have master's level or doctorate level degrees in mental health and at least two years of actual counseling experience. Most importantly, though, the spouses are the ones who decide whether their marital issues might be resolved, or that their marriage is worth the time and effort necessary to give alternative dispute resolution a try. They are not pressured in any way to make a decision, one way or the other, during the conciliation conferences. Once the Request for Marriage Counseling is Accepted Once the request for marriage counseling is accepted by the Court, the couple can't withdraw the request until they either complete the minimum number of conciliation conferences or the Court orders an end to the sessions. In Pima County, only the spouse who filed the petition for conciliation may file a withdrawal prior to the initial session. The counseling is not a long-drawn out process. It is focused on the narrow task of helping the spouses think through their decision to break-up and informing the couple of the ramifications of divorce, separation, or annulment, and what alternatives are available to them. The 60-Day "Cooling Off" Period If there is no family law case pending when a spouse files a petition for marital counseling, and assuming the petition is accepted for the program, then there is a 60-day period in which neither couple may file for divorce, legal separation, or annulment — this is known as the "cooling off" period. Ideally, the 60-day period gives the couple a chance to reflect fully on the course their marriage is on before they commit to a permanent legal solution to end it or legally separate. When a request for marital counseling is filed in conjunction with a divorce action, then there is still a 60-day cooling off period. But with a pending family law case, the cooling off period simply stops a Decree of Dissolution from being entered in the case for two months. After Conciliation Counseling is Completed What the couple decides to do following the marriage counseling is entirely up to them. They could continue through the proceedings in the family court and terminate their marriage, seek an annulment, or legally separate. They could choose to dismiss the family law case, and end all further proceedings. They could also hold off on further action in their case and continue counseling sessions on their own, outside the family court's program. In those circumstances, conciliation services can connect the couple with local community counseling providers so the spouses can continue getting the assistance they need and desire. At the Law Offices of Scott David Stewart, we will do everything possible to ensure that you are fully prepared for a divorce or legal separation before your case is filed. We encourage our clients to consider marriage counseling and alternative dispute resolution before they commit to the dissolution of their marriage. Mediation in particular is often extremely helpful in focusing and resolving disputed issues, even in cases with a high degree of hostility between the spouses. To make important decisions affecting your future and the future of your children, you need to know what options and services are available to you. So give us a call today and schedule a confidential consultation with a member of our knowledgeable and friendly family law team. Resources: Cochise County Conciliation Counseling http://www.cochise.az.gov/cochise_clerk_court.aspx?id=206#Family_Conciliation_Court Maricopa County Conciliation Counseling http://www.superiorcourt.maricopa.gov/SuperiorCourt/Self-ServiceCenter/Forms/FamilyCourt/fc_dradc1.asp Mohave County Conciliation Counseling http://www.mohavecourts.com/CourtAdmin/mediation/mediation.html Pima County Conciliation Counseling http://www.sc.pima.gov/?tabid=105 Pinal County Conciliation Counseling http://pinalcountyaz.gov/Departments/ConciliationCourt/Pages/ConciliationCounselingFAQ.aspx
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