Counseling for Married Couples in Distress

Judge Clarence Cramer is recognized as a leader in the formation of Arizona’s conciliation courts. Since establishment of the first Conciliation Court in 1975 as part of the Pinal County Superior Court, with Judge Cramer at the helm, families have been offered an alternative to resolving marital disputes only through divorce.

Our current courts’ Conciliation Services provide free counseling to married couples, a service that is often overlooked by spouses contemplating divorce. When one spouse believes that counseling could help save the relationship, or at least get them through their current domestic impasse, then marriage counseling through the court’s family services may help. There is no requirement that a divorce already be pending. In fact, free counseling is available when either spouse wants to attempt reconciliation or resolution of 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 referring to in this article 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.

Marital Counseling

Conciliation counseling is an option for couples who want 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, the underlying case number is included in the request. There is a deadline for filing with a pending family law case. The counseling petition must be filed within 60 days of service of the underlying petition for dissolution of marriage, separation, or annulment. 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.

When Conciliation Services accepts jurisdiction, the counseling sessions typically begin within twenty-five to thirty days following acceptance of the petition. These scheduled meetings 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 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 Conciliation Services, 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. Typically, only the spouse who filed the petition for conciliation may file a withdrawal prior to the initial session.

The counseling sessions take place at various locations in each county. Maricopa County conducts marriage counseling at all four of its court locations. The marital counseling is not a long-drawn out process, either. In Maricopa County, it is limited to three total sessions: one for each spouse with the counselor, and one with both spouses and the counselor. (And the counselor may determine that the meeting with both spouses should not go forward if the circumstances dictate.) The sessions are focused on the narrow task of helping the spouses reflect on their decision to break up and inform them of the ramifications of divorce, separation, or annulment, and the alternatives available to them.

You may be wondering what happens if a spouse, or both spouses, doesn’t appear at the scheduled session. When a spouse is a “no show,” there are no sanctions. Instead of punishing the spouse or spouses for failing to appear, Conciliation Services will release its jurisdiction over the parties to the marriage counseling. If there is a pending family law case, it will pick up right where it left off.

The 60-Day “Cooling Off” Period

If there is no family law case pending and the counseling petition is accepted into the program, then there is a 60-day period in which neither couple may file a divorce or family law case — this is known as the “cooling off” period. Ideally, the 60-day period gives the couple a chance to reflect calmly on their current marital course before they commit to a permanent legal solution to end their marriage 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 prevents a Decree of Dissolution of Marriage from being entered 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 affecting their marriage. 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.

Here at Stewart Law Group, we strongly 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. The important decisions you make now will affect your future and the future of your children. Given the seriousness of your circumstances, you need to make informed and thoughtful decisions. This website is designed to give you the information you need to recognize your options and to take advantage of the court services and private services available to you at each step in your divorce.

The four Conciliation Services Offices in Maricopa County are located at:

Central Court Building
201 W. Jefferson Street, 3rd Floor
Phoenix, Arizona 85003
Northeast Court Facility
18380 N. 40th Street
Phoenix, Arizona 85032
Northwest Court Facility
14264 W. Tierra Buena Lane
Surprise, Arizona 85374
Southeast Court Facility
222 E. Javelina Drive
Mesa, Arizona 85210