How Collaborative Divorce is Changing Divorce and Child Custody
When someone realizes that they are facing a divorce or custody dispute, they often face a moment of terror. Not just because there are now major questions looming as to how they will divide their assets or see their children, but because of the images it conjures up. Many immediately think of the tall, dark, imposing wooden panels of the courtroom walls; the stern, gavel-banging judge deciding their fate; the watchful eye of the gallery staring down the parties as their lawyers shout objections and witnesses burst into tears.
Fortunately, most of these images come more from a poorly written episodes of “Law & Order” than from reality. Even if a divorce or child custody disputes do proceeds towards litigation, typically the family court does not involve any of these sensationalized components. It’s more likely to involve modern facilities, a lack of gallery, limited objections and, frankly, I’ve never seen a judge bang a gavel once. There are, however, plenty of tears.
Nonetheless, the idea of something as personal as a separation from your spouse, or the custody of your children, proceeding in court can (and to some extent probably should) be a little terrifying.
In essence, in the traditional litigation process, a party appears in court, where they will sit quietly while someone they barely know (their lawyer) argues the facts and circumstances of their life to a person who essentially does not know them at all (the judge), who ultimately decides how they live the rest of their life—both financially and with regard to their children.
Many of the decisions in family court will be made without the parties even being present, and when they are, much like traditionally good children, they are preferred to be seen and not heard. All of this isolation from the decision making process can be quite terrifying for parties. In some ways it is even more terrifying than the specter of the dark wood panels and booming echoes of the stern Judge’s words off of the walls. It is for this reason, over the years, many parties have sought to find an alternative means of dispute resolution to assist them with their divorce and child custody matters.
One of the newer movements in alternative resolution in family law is the use of Collaborative Law techniques.
Collaborative divorce has been cited in several studies as offering parties an alternative to traditional litigation which is more confidential, faster, and potentially less expensive than the traditional path. More important to the parties themselves, I believe, is the fact that they are active participants in the collaborative divorce process.
By design, the collaborative divorce process focuses on the parties’ goals and interests, and their ability to work with one another, not just to finalize an initial agreement but also in the long term. Often the parties will have many years of co-parenting ahead of them, and a collaborative divorce can help them to communicate better, allowing them to address minor issues which may arise over the years without the need to lawyer up and run to court.
So What is Collaborative Divorce?
Anyone who has been involved with the Family Court either as an attorney or litigant has likely had the opportunity to recognize that the unique family dynamics and continuing interpersonal relationships in plat cannot simply be pounded in to place. Collaborative Law recognizes that and provides a new system focused on protecting and redeveloping those relationships. From the beginning, each of the parties agree that neither one of them will take any legal action through the court system. The promise not to pursue litigation in the courts, and to instead freely and voluntarily exchange documents, information and ideas, is really the hallmark of the collaborative process. The parties agree that they will retain collaboratively trained attorneys to assist them with an understanding of the collaborative process itself, as well as the issues, facts and laws that affect their matter.
The vast majority of collaborative cases begin and end without any litigation.
Through the collaborative process, the parties meet individually with their respective collaborative counsel, as well as engage in a series of meetings with their collaborative team. The goal is working through whatever issues arise as a part of their domestic relations situation, whether those issues be the division of assets, support, child custody, or anything else.
While the parties’ attorneys provide them with information and guidance, it is ultimately the parties themselves who do the bulk of the negotiating directly with each other to try and address their respective concerns.
The parties and their counsel are also aided by the assistance of the collaborative coach. The collaborative coach is a trained mental health professional who assists in facilitating a dialogue between the parties, continuing to move conversation in a productive path towards a shared, amicable resolution.
Through the collaborative process, the parties may additionally need to rely upon other collaborative professionals. Oftentimes, the parties jointly retain a “Financial Neutral.” A “Financial Neutral” is a collaboratively trained financial professional who can assist the parties with financial issues from preparation of asset schedules and budgets, to valuation of business interests held by the parties.
In addition, in some custody cases, the parties may also wish to jointly retain a “Child Specialist.” A “Child Specialist” is a psychologist who works directly with the parties’ children, and brings their input and information to the collaborative table without the children having to be directly involved in any discussions as to custody issues.
As the parties present their respective positions and interests to the collaborative team, attempts are made to reach agreements as to not only the overall resolution, but as to the various individual issues as they may arise. As agreements are reached during this process, the parties’ counsel can draft documents to confirm any such arrangements. These agreements are legally binding upon the parties and will constitute a resolution of those particular issues.
Rather than submitting facts and documentation to the judge, the parties exchange this information with one another in an attempt to formulate a resolution that achieves both of their goals, as they relate to future sharing of expenses, division of assets, and parenting their children.
Minimal paperwork is filed with the court, as the majority of the paperwork is done through private agreements, which are only shared between the parties and their collaborative team. Most documentation exchanged or prepared in collaborative divorce remains private and confidential, and known only to the parties and their collaborative team.
Many clients view the collaborative process as a positive alternative to the traditional court litigation process where they are typically beholden to the court’s schedule, and where they must file significant personal information of record on a docket which is then available to the public.
One of the many benefits that clients enjoy from the collaborative process is their ability to meet and discuss issues in real time as they occur, as opposed to being on the court’s specifically delineated time table. The collaborative process allows the parties on the team the freedom to schedule their own meetings, on their own timetables, as well as to maintain confidentiality.
For these reasons, as well as potential cost savings, collaborative divorce is a growing alternative in the area of family law.
For more information about collaborative law, or other means of dispute resolution, please feel free to contact me via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 412-261-9900 to schedule a consultation. You may also contact me through my website at www.uncouplingpittsburgh.com.
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