If you and your spouse are separating or getting a divorce, you might be able to work together on your own to make a separation agreement. But if you need some help making a separation agreement, you have a few options.
Here are some of the people who can help you and how to find them.
Family justice counsellors
Family justice counsellors offer free mediation services for couples and families and can also:
- tell you about the law and the Provincial (Family) Court process,
- refer to you to other people who can help,
- help you fill out family court forms, and
- help you plan a separation agreement.
They can't help you with property and debt division, except for small amounts.
Family justice counsellors work at Family Justice Centres. You'll find them in many cities in BC, sometimes at the local courthouse.
To speak to a family justice counsellor, call Service BC at:
- 604-660-2421 (Greater Vancouver),
- 250-387-6121 (Victoria), or
- 1-800-663-7867 (elsewhere in BC).
Ask them to put you through to a family justice counsellor near you. The call's free.
See Family Justice Counsellors in Family Justice Centres on the BC government website to find out more.
A mediator has been trained to help you and your spouse work together to solve your separation issues.
They don't make decisions or tell you what to do. They encourage you and your spouse to listen to each other and help you come up with ideas for sorting out your problems in ways that work for you both.
Some mediators are lawyers, but they can't give you legal advice, just general information about family law. If you have children, the mediator will help you make decisions that are in the children's best interests.
Mediation meetings can last between two hours and all day. You might have more than one meeting. Sometimes the mediator will meet with you and your spouse separately.
Usually, you share the cost of the mediation. You and your spouse have to work this part out yourselves. The mediator can't do this for you.
The mediation agreement
After you and your spouse have reached an agreement, the mediator will either:
- write down what you've agreed to in a Minutes of Settlement. Sometimes it's called a Memorandum of Understanding. You or your lawyer can use it when you're writing your separation agreement, which usually has more details about what you've agreed. Or
- create a separation agreement for you. Only mediators who are lawyers can do this.
A Memorandum of Understanding isn't legally binding (that means you can't use it to make the other person do something in it). It should say this clearly in the document. If you're asked to sign it, check that it says it isn't legally binding.
Before you sign any separation agreement, even one drafted (written as a first version) by a mediator who's a lawyer, you and your spouse should each ask your own lawyer look at it to make sure it's fair and in the best interests of your children. You can't both use the same lawyer, as that would be a conflict of interest. See What is independent legal advice? to find out more about conflicts of interest.
See Making an agreement after you separate to find out about enforcing or changing a mediated agreement.
How do you find a mediator?
You can find mediators in a few places.
For example, family justice counsellors offer this service (see Family justice counsellors, above).
You can also get help from:
- Mediate BC: a list of qualified family mediators and more information about mediation and how it works
- Family Mediation Canada: information about qualified family mediators
- The Lawyer Referral Service
- MyLawBC's Family Resolution Centre: free online mediators to help you and your ex-spouse write a parenting plan
- At the Richmond and Robson Square Provincial Courthouses, the judge may offer you up to four hours of free mediation if you qualify. See the eNews article on the Provincial Court of BC website.
Or you could search online by using the word "mediator" and the name of the city you live in.
Can you make your spouse go to mediation?
If you've started a case in Supreme Court, you might be able to make your spouse go to mediation.
To do this, you serve your spouse with a document called a Notice to Mediate. See Making mediation happen in a family law case in Supreme Court and Serve Supreme Court documents to find out more about this.
For more information about what mediators do:
- see Mediators on the BC government website, and
- watch the below video from An Inside Look at Family Mediation from the Continuing Legal Education Society.
Lawyers do a lot more than help people go to court. For example, family lawyers spend a lot of their time helping people reach agreements.
In fact, the Canadian Bar Association (BC Branch)'s guidelines say family lawyers should try to:
- reduce conflict and encourage their clients to do the same, and
- encourage their clients to sort out their issues without going to court and to put the interests of their children first.
See Separating or Divorcing Couples on their website for some helpful information.
A lawyer can't represent both you and your spouse. That's called a conflict of interest and it's against the rules of the Law Society of British Columbia. You each need your own lawyer. See What is independent legal advice? to find out more about this.
Collaborative family lawyers
Collaborative family lawyers have been trained to deal with family cases in a certain way.
In the collaborative family law process, you and your spouse agree to work together with lawyers who practise collaborative family law to find solutions that work for both of you. Both you and your spouse have your own lawyers.
An agreement reached through the collaborative family law process is a legal contract. That means you have to do what it says.
The process is different from traditional divorce or separation processes in a few ways. For example:
- You don't go to court. You, your spouse, and your lawyers all sign an agreement that you'll work together to sort out your issues without going to court.
- You're honest with each other. You and your spouse agree in writing to open and honest communication. That includes sharing information with one another about anything related to your separation.
- You take a team approach. You'll be able to get help from specially trained lawyers, divorce coaches, child specialists, and financial advisers when you need it. You and the professionals on your team will work together to solve your issues about support, division of property, or parenting.
- You'll have four-way meetings and team meetings. Your lawyers don't do all the talking. Instead, you, your spouse, and your professional team have meetings together. You might also meet with each of the professionals separately or together. The number of meetings you'll have will depend on how many issues you and your spouse have and how difficult they are.
For the collaborative family law process to work, you and your spouse have to be able to talk about your separation issues honestly and respectfully and not treat each other as enemies.
Can anyone use the collaborative family law process?
Collaborative family law might not work for everyone, especially if there have been issues of family violence or child abuse.
It can be expensive, but it's still usually a lot less than going to court.
How do you find a collaborative family lawyer?
To find a collaborative family lawyer, see the following websites:
- BC Collaborative Roster Society (Lower Mainland and Victoria)
- Collaborative Divorce Vancouver (Lower Mainland)
- The Collaborative Association (Lower Mainland)
- Collaborative Family Separation Professionals (Victoria)
- North Shore Collaborative Family Law Group (Vancouver)
- Okanagan Collaborative Family Law Group (Okanagan Valley)
- Collaborative Law Group of Nelson (East and West Kootenays)
The Lawyer Referral Service might also be able to refer you to a lawyer who practises collaboratively.
Pro Bono Collaborative Divorce Project
The BC Collaborative Roster Society offers a pro bono (free) program for people going through separation or divorce who want to hire collaborative family lawyers but can't afford to. See the Pro Bono Project for more information and to apply online.
Other ways to find help
See Write your own separation agreement for a guide to writing a legally binding separation agreement.
See MyLawBC for question and answer pathways that take you to personalized action plans for dealing with separation, getting court orders, or dealing with family law forms. Make a separation plan has links to online tools that can help you and your spouse make your own separation agreement online without meeting face-to-face.
Niki learns about making a separation agreement and finds online help, in our illustrated short story Separation: put it in writing.
Clare hears how a mediator can help her and her ex settle their issues, in our illustrated short story, Talking it through.