There is hope. If you are a parent and you suspect divorce is in your future, you can mitigate future financial and family damage if you avoid a litigated divorce. If you cannot prevent the divorce, then opt for a Collaborative Divorce. Four local experts who know both sides of the coin share their wisdom.
Children in the Middle
Child and family therapist Faith Wilson, MA, LPC describes a common post-divorce holiday. “One parent wants to do the holidays like they always have. Well, they forgot about the new girlfriend, boyfriend or the new spouse. They don’t consider how they will get the unhappy in-laws together. This wonderful blended idea blows up.” The scenes have such impressionable consequences that family members suffer in the future. “People think they can just throw everyone together and everything will be just wonderful. But instead, they cannot forget the pain when holidays come around.”
The rest of the year can also be sprinkled with landmines, particularly if parents go back to court for litigated modifications of child support or visitation. Modifications are every bit as complex as the original divorce. With the passage of time, there are more facts to consider and often more hostility than in the divorce. Family law attorney, Wendy Wood Hencerling explains, “people who go back to court have an axe to grind and the litigation makes everything worse. Modifications are expensive. Wounds go deeper. Children are polarized. In-laws are polarized. Everyone takes a side.”
Family law attorney Randy Michel has seen Ms. Wilson teach his clients how to mitigate future modifications. “On Collaborative Divorce cases, Ms. Wilson shows each spouse how to anticipate the many nuances and issues that will come up in the future. During a Collaborative Divorce, she teaches both parents how to clearly communicate needs and desires plus how to continue that path in the post-divorce years. I have never heard of a modification after a Collaborative Divorce.”
The Shocking Cost of Failures to Communicate
Just how expensive is a modification? According to Kassi Horner, family law attorney with Peterson Law Group, “It depends on the nature of the case, but on average, you are looking at a minimum of $5,000 per parent.” Mr. Michel has seen costs climb up to “the price of a new car.” Ms. Horner has had a parent who went back to court for modifications three times in three years, while Ms. Hencerling has a client who took five trips back to court. The failure to communicate can seriously erode college savings and retirement nest eggs.
For parents who cannot prevent divorce, the trick to avoiding future modifications is to first choose the Collaborate Divorce process and avoid a litigious one. Ms. Wilson says the parenting plan worked out in a Collaborative Divorce will be crafted for the individual needs of the family members. In her 38 years, she has never seen a parenting plan in a litigation case where the attorneys tailored it to the family. When Ms. Wilson helps parents design a parenting plan in a Collaborative Divorce, she asks Mom and Dad a lot of what-if questions. “I try to fit the parenting plan for today and for the future. This decreases the amount of conflict they might otherwise experience. And if they need help in the years after the divorce, they can return to the Collaborative setting. They can meet with a Collaborative child specialist who will help them reach agreements by reminding Mom and Dad how to work together in a safe, supportive environment.”
Ms. Hencerling knows that “even the most litigious couples would have benefited had they started out in the Collaborative Divorce process. Litigation makes everything worse.” Parents are at the mercy of the Court to get a visitation modification hearing date before the holidays. “Collaborative Divorce moves at the couple’s pace. You want a resolution now? We will make it happen. You want to meet at 2:00 am? We will do it. The Judge won’t do that.”
I asked Ms. Horner if the Collaborative Divorce process could have prevented those expensive modification hearings. “Absolutely. The collaborative approach would have allowed these parents to take the time and make use of professionals to work through the hurt and anger. They would focus on their long term goals instead of using the adversarial court system and their children to hurt each other.”
Ms. Horner’s final advice for divorcing couples with children? “You had children together. You owe it to them to engage in the calm and supportive atmosphere of the Collaborative Divorce approach instead of the atmosphere of conflict, anxiety, and stress inherent in the traditional divorce litigation.”