Collaborative Divorce FAQ’s

1. What is collaborative divorce?

Collaborative divorce is a family law process in which a couple who has decided to end their marriage is guided by their respective attorneys, and sometimes other specialists, to reach a mutually agreeable divorce settlement involving spousal maintenance, child custody and/or property settlement issues.

The collaborative process is also appropriate for parents who share custody, couples who want prenuptial contracts, as well as probate, employment, intellectual property and personal injury disputes.

2. How does it work?

First, both attorneys should be trained in the collaborative process. The couple signs a “Participation Agreement” that shows mutual commitment and disqualifies their attorneys from representing them should the matter later go to court.

Through a series of meetings, the couple determines and prioritizes their respective needs and interests. The couple may choose to have child therapists, divorce coaches, accountants or spiritual advisors present to offer guidance. Or, the couple may choose to have no one other than their attorneys present. They then work together to make financial arrangements, share responsibilities and/or coordinate schedules as necessary.

3. What if we change our minds?

If a couple decides to resolve their divorce issues, they may postpone the divorce without any papers having been filed in court. The cost of the process, the impact on the family, and the risk of publicity are all significantly minimized.

4. What if we try it and it fails?

Collaborative divorce is successful because it uses cooperative negotiation. However, collaborative divorces can still fall apart. A couple may reach impasse and decide to take their divorce to court. When this happens, both parties’ attorneys must withdraw from representation. The emotional and financial impact of starting over with new attorneys to litigate the matter is one incentive to seeing things through to the end of a collaborative divorce.

5. Are certain kinds of situations NOT good for collaborative divorce?

Situations that involve domestic violence, addiction, untreated mental illness or intention to cause emotional or financial pain are not good candidates for collaborative divorce and may be better suited to arbitration or litigation.

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Avoiding a Sensational Divorce

The news is full of celebrity couples on the brink of divorce, including the latest victims Tiger and Elin Woods and Sandra Bullock and Jesse James.  While you may not be a celebrity, the same concepts that can help make these high profile divorces less public and painful can apply to anyone considering divorce.

The latest solution for divorcing couples is called collaborative divorce.  Collaborative divorce allows the divorcing parties to control the process and terms through a non-confrontational process, rather than proceeding through the notoriously bitter and expensive process of divorce litigation.

The Litigation Process

In litigation, each side’s attorney performs countless hours of financial research, and waits for the other side to produce their results of countless hours of research.  Parties file aggressive motions and petitions against the other, essentially “going to war” with the goal of causing as much emotional and financial injury to the other person as possible. In the end, there are relatively few forms to fill out, yet a divorce can drag on for years, all at the expense of the parties who are each trying to move on and start over.

And all too often, divorce attorneys are unaware or simply don’t care that the typical “adversary” style that works so well in the courtroom is actually fueling the fire of the already existing dispute.  Or are they unaware?  Arguably, it may be in a divorce attorney’s self interest to allow a divorcing couple to fight on indefinitely, since the attorney is being paid an hourly rate and the couple “needs to work out their issues” in order to find closure.  Of course, attorneys have ethical obligations to perform competently and diligently, and an ethical lawyer will not intentionally drag out a case for the sake of a higher fee.

The Collaborative Divorce Process

In collaborative divorce, parties agree at the outset not to take the divorce to court. The collaborative process emphasizes cooperation instead of confrontation, and problem solving instead of fault finding.  Parties agree to avoid confrontation for the sake of reaching a mutual agreement that leave their fates in their own hands, instead of in the hands of a judge.

Assisted by a trained collaborative attorney, the parties then mediate their financial, property and custody issues, and negotiate the settlement they want presented to the judge. Parties can agree to have any number of financial, emotional or spiritual advisors present to help, or parties may choose to use a single financial advisor to help maintain confidentiality of financial assets.

Benefits of Collaborative Divorce

  • Private and confidential – keeps private issues out of the public eye
  • Fast and flexible – couples decide how fast the divorce proceeds and who else is involved
  • Affordable – there is no need for a divorce to drag on for years
  • Reduces stress – benefits the adults involved AND their children
  • Parties control it – any settlement must be agreeable to both people
  • Forward-focused – focuses on solutions that allow both parties to move on
  • Positive – allows a peaceful ongoing relationship if parties so choose

Consequences of Taking a Divorce Public

  • Charlie Sheen & Denise Richards – This couple’s initially amicable divorce suddenly derailed when the media picked up on Sheen’s hateful emails and voicemails to Richards.  In response, Richards filed court papers publicly claiming that Sheen was physically abusive and addicted to gambling and porn. The couples’ two children were caught in the middle. Two years after starting the divorce, the couple settled for an undisclosed amount.
  • Christy Brinkley & Peter Cook – After ten years of marriage, news broke of Cook’s affair with a teenager he met in a toy store and this couple was headed for divorce court to resolve issues of child custody.  Cook hired a psychiatrist to say that Brinkley was “consumed by rage”. The report, however, showed that Brinkley should still get full custody of the couple’s two children. Brinkley, in turn, claimed that Cook was addicted to porn. The end result was a settlement for $2.1 million for Cook, with custody going to Brinkley, but the lasting effect on the two kids may not be known for years.
  • Paul McCartney & Heather Mills – After only four years of marriage, this couple announced plans to split in 2006.  Tabloids seized the opportunity to research Mills’ past, alleging that she was a prostitute and a gold-digger. In response, Mills accused McCartney of emotional and physical abuse.  A bad move, given the outpouring of public support for him that resulted.  Mills, however, still walked away with a settlement worth over $48 million.
  • Tricia Walsh (the YouTube Divorce) – When her husband Philip Smith, President of Broadway theater owners The Shubert Organization, “unfairly evicted” her from their Park Avenue apartment, Walsh decided to air her grievances in a 6 ½ minute YouTube video. The video publicly discussed the couples’ prenuptial agreement and described embarrassing private details about the couples’ sex life.  Three months later, a judge granted the husband a divorce based on cruel and inhuman treatment and blasted Walsh for her “calculated and callous campaign to embarrass and humiliate her husband”. Walsh received $750,000 but the eviction was upheld.