What is Alternative Dispute Resolution?

Alternative dispute resolution uses personalized approaches to resolving conflicts instead of traditional litigation. In family law, ADR is a valuable tool for families to handle conflicts in a respectful and affordable way.

Family conflicts can be emotionally challenging, but alternative dispute resolution can offer a compassionate and constructive path toward resolving differences. In a courtroom setting, tensions can run high and create stress, not to mention added legal expense. ADR, on the other hand, focuses on open communication and compromise. The goal is to reach mutually agreeable outcomes.

Methods like mediation and collaborative divorce prioritize understanding and respect. They encourage parties to work together towards solutions that benefit everyone. Additionally, they allow families to address issues with empathy and concern for each other's views.

When is Family Law ADR Effective?

Although an alternative to spending a day in court, ADR isn't right for everyone. For mediation or collaborative resolution to work, you and your spouse must be able to:

  • Agree on critical issues
  • Work together to resolve those critical issues
  • Be honest and open with each other

If this sounds like something you and your spouse can do, then ADR might be in your best interest. If not, you might need to take the more common route of litigation. That's true if your marriage has a history of dishonesty or toxicity. It's also true if you and your spouse can't agree on key issues like valuation of marital property or child custody.

Why Use ADR for Family Law Disputes?

First, you can solve problems faster without a litigation attorney.  In Pennsylvania, the legal process can often be slow and tedious. Second, you'll spend less money by eliminating attorney fees. Although it's often best to get some legal advice before proceeding.

Family law ADR is also more private, so issues remain confidential. That protects your privacy and provides security during an already difficult time.

Alternative dispute resolution can help resolve a wide range of family law issues, including:

  • Divorce
  • Child custody and support
  • Spousal support
  • Property division
  • Prenuptial and postnuptial agreements

Alternative dispute resolution can be especially valuable when children are involved. It can often reduce the stress of litigation, protecting the well-being of your children. It can also help families maintain positive relationships crucial for long-term stability and well-being.

ADR in Family Law Divorce Cases

ADR can also be helpful in family cases with divorce. Divorce ADR can save time and money on a lengthy divorce process. It can also lessen the mental health impact of divorce. With less stress, you and your children may be able to settle into your new routines more quickly.

Mediation, arbitration, and collaborative divorce allow couples to reach a compromise that avoids family court.

Most Common ADR Methods Used for Family Law

Choosing the best type of family law ADR depends on the nature of your legal issue. It also needs to consider how well you can talk and listen to each other.

An experienced family law attorney can help you decide the best option. They can help you select the ADR approach that best suits your situation.

Typically, there are four types of ADR used in family law disputes:


First, both parties must willingly engage in the process. Mediation uses a neutral third-party mediator and is voluntary. They assist you in coming to a mutually acceptable agreement.

This approach encourages open communication and cooperation, which is particularly effective in child custody, visitation rights, and property division matters. A mediator's report isn't legally binding.

Divorce mediation has become popular, with some states requiring the process before moving to court.

One upside to mediation is that you have choices. For example, you can end the talks at any time. You can also decide not to accept what your spouse offers, or what the mediator suggests.

It's helpful to get legal advice before mediation begins. Additionally, if a settlement agreement is drafted it's wise to have an attorney review it to ensure protection of your legal rights.

That differs from arbitration, where you have no choice but to follow the arbitrator’s decision. You must accept the arbitrator’s outcome as long as it follows the law. However, in some circumstances, you can appeal a family arbitration award to the court.


Arbitration is like a court case but less formal. Although not required, most people include a family lawyer.

At the hearing, you and your partner may provide evidence. You can also undergo cross-examination of that evidence. After each of you present your case, the arbitrator makes a decision called an arbitral award. Their decision is legally binding.

The arbitration process for family law ADR works well for disputes involving finances and spousal support issues, although, an arbitrator cannot grant a divorce or an annulment. The decision is treated as a binding agreement attached to the decree in divorce.

An arbitrator can ultimately decide on:

  • Support for children
  • Spousal support
  • Identification of non-marital property or non-marital value
  • Factors for property distribution and alimony
  • How to value, divide, and distribute marital property
  • Legal fees and costs

It's worth noting that child support can be changed.

Collaborative Law

Collaborative law uses a team of professionals, including lawyers, financial experts, and mental health professionals. They work together to help negotiate and reach an agreement. Collaborative law works well with complicated cases, like those with high-value assets or child custody matters.

Collaborative law is often a means of resolving disputes involving divorce. The couple each hires an attorney specializing in collaborative law. In addition, the parties sign an agreement that their attorneys will not to go to court.

The attorneys direct the resolution process and counsel their clients. The couple negotiates a fair property division and spousal support is addressed, if necessary. They also agree on custody, a visitation schedule, and child support.

This may sound like mediation. However, unlike mediation, a collaborative divorce requires an attorney. It also requires shared selection of experts on children and property valuation. Like mediation, the process is often shorter than a traditional divorce and in most cases, costs less.

Parenting Coordination

Parenting coordination is a specialized form of family law ADR focused on resolving parenting disputes. A parenting coordinator (PC) helps parents create and adhere to parenting plans, reducing conflicts related to child-rearing.

In some counties, the PC can make decisions when parents can't agree. PCs are usually specially trained mediators, mental health professionals, or family lawyers.

The parental coordinator's goals are:

  • Protecting the child's best interests
  • Encouraging cooperation between parents
  • Encouraging interactions between parents
  • Keeping parents out of court by making issue decisions

Benefits of Alternative Dispute Resolution for Families

As mentioned, ADR won't work for everyone. But if you have an open mind, it offers numerous benefits:

  • Cost: ADR is generally more cost-effective than traditional litigation.
  • Saves time: ADR can often help resolve disputes more quickly than traditional litigation.
  • Confidentiality: Proceedings are confidential, which can be important for families who want to keep their matters private.
  • Preservation of relationships: The process may help family members keep their relationships. That can be important with children involved in the dispute.

Family Law ADR in Pennsylvania

Contact us if you think alternative dispute resolution might be right for you. Our law firm has offices in Norristown and Doylestown, PA.

For convenience, ADR is often conducted using video conferencing.

Family attorney, Mary Cushing Doherty is a certified mediator and arbitrator with decades of experience as a family lawyer. She's also trained in ADR. She understands the issues that can drive a family to ADR, and can help settle disputes without expensive, stressful, and time-consuming litigation.

Family Law ADR Attorneys

Mary Cushing Doherty

Mary Cushing Doherty | Montgomery County Family lawyer

Mary Cushing Doherty is a senior partner at our firm. As an attorney, she concentrates her practice on all aspects of marital dissolution and family issues.

Kimberly J. Krzyzaniak

Kimberly J. Krzyzaniak | Delaware County PA Family Law Attorney

Kimberly J. Krzyzaniak is a dedicated Delaware County family law attorney representing clients involved in divorce, custody and grandparent custody, and mediation matters.

Caitlin Foley

Caitlin Foley family attorney

Caitlin Foley is a highly skilled family attorney with a passion for advocating for her clients during some of the most emotional times of their lives.

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