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Should You Arbitrate Your Family Law Dispute?

Two people in a disagreement with an arbitrator
Posted on August 16, 2023 by Christina Smith

Is arbitration the right forum for your divorce or family law dispute?

Arbitration can be an alternative to using a court to resolve your family law matter. It is a private proceeding that will likely take place in an office or online and tends to be less formal than court proceedings. The arbitrator is often a retired judge, and in family cases, sometimes an attorney with years of family law experience. The role of the arbitrator is to listen to the arguments, review motions and briefs, and to render decisions/rulings – just like a judge or jury in court. An arbitrator is like a judge in that the arbitrator will make decisions to resolve the case. Compared to court, arbitration can be swifter, but this is not always the case. It is also important to understand that a court may still need to be used for various parts of a family law proceeding. Arbitration is also different from mediation where the mediator’s role is to help the parties achieve an agreement without any power to decide the matter like an arbitrator or a court.

Arbitration can be binding (the final forum for resolution) and/or mandatory (required by a court or agreement). Most family law arbitrations will be by agreement and binding. Binding arbitration is very difficult to appeal compared to a court decision with one exception being parenting plan disputes which are appealable to the Superior Court per RCW 26.09.184(4)(e). However, litigants in court typically have no say over which judge may get assigned to a case whereas the litigants in arbitration can agree upon a single arbitrator or a limited group to further select from. Arbitrators can also be selected based on past experience, reputation, and other factors. Despite this, the arbitrator has the ultimate say in proceedings like a judge in court.

The Uniform Family Law Arbitration Act (UFLAA) has been recently adopted to create a statutory scheme for the arbitration of family law disputes. The UFLAA should provide further structure and clarity for arbitrations in the family law context. However, the UFLAA does not authorize an arbitrator to make an award that grants a dissolution of marriage, terminates parental rights, grants an adoption or guardianship of a child, or determines the status of dependency.

Arbitration may be an effective forum for resolving your family law dispute. The family law attorneys at Lasher Holzapfel Sperry & Ebberson PLLC can help you evaluate which forum to pursue for your matter.