Someone you know has worked diligently to try to save their marriage, but now the divorce is inevitable. They are dreading nasty tricks, money gauging and children stuck in the middle. Fortunately, that is not necessarily inevitable. If two spouses can get to a settlement agreement very quickly, they can avoid court and get through a litigated divorce with a few settlement meetings. Unfortunately, one person’s idea of a fair settlement is often not the same as their spouse’s definition. There is the problem.
The good news is that there is an alternative to your traditional litigated divorce and mediation. It is this thing called collaborative law divorce. There is a real opportunity for Brazos Valley divorce attorneys who are skilled in collaborative law.
“It can be a money pit to do a litigated divorce, which may seem unavoidable in this community,” says Wendy Wood, local family law attorney. “I would really like some local family law litigators to get into this. There are some really sharp, fine, knowledgeable attorneys in town who could do very well for their clients and their practices by doing collaborative law divorces.”
In total disclosure here, most of my work is in collaborative law divorces. All of my current cases are in Houston, where many attorneys have embraced this alternative way to divorce. I am a board member of the Collaborative Law Institute of Texas. I have experience in both traditional divorce methods and collaborative divorce.
Based on my experience with clients in four communities in the lower half of Texas, collaborative cases are less expensive, resolve quicker, retain privacy, create customized resolutions and foster better relationships with ex-spouses and children. But it is not perfect. You have to be honest. You have to be capable of making and sticking with decisions. If you are part of the 4% of worldwide couples who cannot agree on a collaborative divorce settlement, you would have to either reconcile or start over in litigation with different attorneys.
The most frequent reason divorce attorneys give for not offering the collaborative law option to their clients is this: the couple must start over in litigation with a different attorney than the one who handled the collaborative law effort. The reason behind the rule is a valid one. One of the keys to success in the collaborative process is honesty. That is not necessarily the situation with litigation. In the collaborative setting, your spouse’s attorney may learn something from you that could be used against you in the courtroom. The rules of collaborative law prevent that vulnerability and risk by disallowing attorneys to switch to their litigation hat after being in the collaborative process with you.
In a recent interview with Ms. Wood, she asks her peers, “This is a growing and lucrative practice that is cost effective and good for your client and your client’s children. If you learn to do this well, it is much less stressful on you personally. Plus it will be part of the family law specialization exam next year. Why would you not want to do this?”
Why indeed? The collaborative process offers benefits over the litigation/mediation method that last into the future. Divorce is really hard on children. However, if the parents opt for it, in the collaborative process they can learn how to co-parent with minimal conflict and create a redesigned family that fosters good relationships among parents and children. They can also move forward with a cost effective resource for helping them resolve those inevitable future parenting conflicts ranging from public school versus private school, medical decisions such as testing for ADHD and what kind of car to get the child down to piercings, tattoos, after school activities and cell phone rules. This resource is called a Parent Coordinator. He or she helps parents find middle ground and consensus instead of going back to court. Ms. Wood describes going back to court to resolve parenting disputes: “It often costs $7,000 per family unit to have your day in court. Or you can spend a few hours with the parent coordinator to get to the underlying emotional issue at $150 per hour.”
Another aspect of collaborative divorce that reduces expenses is the transparency. In litigation and mediation, you have gone through “discovery” first. That is where each side is asked to answer questions and send over documents in an effort “just to figure out what someone may have hidden,” explains Ms. Wood, just after she has sent out three or four sets of discovery. Discovery can cost thousands of dollars in asking the questions, answering the questions, compiling, organizing and copying the documents and assessing their helpfulness in the litigated divorce. In a collaborative case, one set of documents and answers comes from the couple. A neutral financial professional reviews the documents and verifies the validity of the information. He or she can also advise on the tax and financial issues and offer alternative options for dividing property and meeting cash flow needs.
How could this alternative method save money if you have two attorneys, a neutral Parent Coordinator and a neutral financial professional? Ms. Wood explains, “Neutrals are at a lower rate and are faster in their expertise than the attorneys. You know what your expenses are as you go along. It sounds expensive, but it is not.”