When people think of divorce, they imagine two bitter spouses embroiled in a court battle. They imagine lawyers pounding their fists on the table and children crying by being caught in the middle. While many divorcing couples are bitter and have contentious divorces, it doesn’t have to be this way.
Collaborative divorce recognizes that two spouses built the marriage, and they have the right to determine how to end it. By working together, spouses can avoid the expenses, extra time, unpredictable outcomes and frustration of having a judge make decisions about their divorce that may not be in their best interests. Today, more and more couples are turning to the collaborative divorce option to get divorced on their own terms.
The Basics of Collaborative Divorce
Collaborative divorce is ideal for couples who are willing to reach agreements outside of court even if they do not currently agree on everything. Couples may not agree on the key terms of their divorce, such as child custody, child support, property division or spousal support, but they have the capability of reaching reasonable decisions with the help of professionals.
In a contested divorce case, the spouses hire their own lawyer who fights for their position in court. In these situations, the spouses may not have much contact with each other and their lawyers take center stage in a fierce battle. A collaborative divorce focuses on making out-of-court negotiations and ultimately reaching decisions together that the soon-to-be exes submit to the family law judge for final approval.
Most of the work in collaborative divorce is completed in the background. When successful, collaborative divorce allows the divorcing spouses to resolve their disputes internally and removes the decision-making authority from the judge. The outcomes are often better in collaborative divorce because a stranger is not making important, life-altering decisions on behalf of the spouses and their family.
In collaborative divorce, all of the professionals are interested in helping the spouses resolve their legal issues in an amicable fashion and avoid litigation. The lawyers who represent the parties are committed to a collaborative divorce. Anything that is said during this process is typically confidential and cannot be repeated in court if negotiations fall through. If the spouses are not able to resolve their case through the collaborative process, the lawyers must abandon the case, and the spouses must hire new attorneys to represent them in contested litigation.
Collaborative Divorce Process
The collaborative divorce process can vary by jurisdiction and the professionals who are working the case. However, the process generally involves the following steps:
- The spouses hire collaborative attorneys who have been trained in the collaborative law process. Each spouse must have his or her own attorney. An attorney cannot ethically represent both sides of a divorce because he or she must advocate for only one party, the client.
- The spouses meet with their attorneys alone and individually. During this meeting, each spouse should share his or her ideas about a favorable divorce outcome. The spouse can discuss his or her vision for a parenting plan, child support, spousal support and property division.
- The spouses and attorneys sign a collaborative divorce contract that sets out the terms of the process and explains that if a decision cannot be reached, the lawyers working the case will be disqualified. This contract will also require the parties to agree to “collaborate” on the divorce process and may lay out guidelines for participation.
- The two attorneys and spouses meet together in joint sessions. Once the attorneys know their clients’ positions, they will advocate for them. The attorneys lay the groundwork for the process in the future and discuss what issues the spouses agree on and which need to be negotiated. There may be several of these negotiation meetings where the spouses try to work out their legal issues.
- Other professionals are brought in to provide advice, support and recommendations. They discuss and help the parties resolve the issues involved in the case.
- If an agreement is reached, the attorneys present this agreement to the court in the divorce case. Knowing that the parties worked together to reach the decisions, the judge will typically approve the agreement and incorporate it into the divorce decree. If the parties are unable to reach an agreement despite diligent efforts, the attorneys will ask to be removed from the case. The spouses will have to hire new attorneys and will continue with the contested case.
Professionals Involved in the Collaborative Divorce Process
In addition to the spouses and the lawyers representing them, many other professionals may be involved. These professionals also try to help the spouses reach an amicable result. Some professionals who may be involved in the collaborative divorce process include:
- Financial planner – Financial planners can help parties have a better understanding of their finances post-divorce. They may help the parties negotiate a fair division of their property and debts. They can help the parties have a better understanding of their cash flow and financial situation. Some financial planners have a special background working with divorcing couples and are accustomed to the emotionally-charged environment.
- Mental health professional – One or more mental health specialists may also be involved. These individuals are usually neutral and do not represent one spouse’s side. They may try to facilitate the communication process and help the couple overcome emotional obstacles that arise when trying to end the marriage.
- Child specialist – In addition to mental health professionals who help the parties, a child specialist may also be involved in the process. This person works with children who are being affected by the divorce process. The child specialist works with the child on coping with the divorce and addresses their needs. The child specialist helps the child navigate this process and have a smoother transition during this emotional time.
- Parenting coordinator – A parenting coordinator helps divorcing families develop parenting plans that communicate the parents’ wishes on how they plan to raise their children together but separately. The parenting coordinator is used to working with parents involved in divorce and child custody disputes and can offer suggestions regarding parenting time, working with different schedules and developing a thorough plan that is focused on the best interests of the child and family.
- Real estate broker – If the spouses own real property that they plan to sell, they may also make a real estate broker a part of their team. This professional will discuss the current housing market, estimate a value of the home and discuss options for unloading the property.
Members of a collaborative divorce team should be neutral and not have any bias toward the interests of one party. Working together with these professionals can ensure the spouses have greater attention focused on the specific needs of their family.
Reasons to Choose Collaborative Divorce
There are many benefits to using collaborative divorce. Some of these are detailed below:
Many people want to avoid conflict during the divorce process, especially if their marriage has experienced a high level of it. Collaborative divorce offers a more positive and peaceful alternative to litigated cases.
It’s no secret divorce is usually expensive. The spouses have to pay expenses for two homes now instead of one. They also have legal bills and maybe other expenses related to the divorce, such as paying for counseling for their children. In contested cases, the more involvement from an attorney or the more times the parties have to go to court usually equals more dollar signs. Collaborative divorce can help the spouses minimize the cost of divorcing and provides a more cost-effective option than litigation.
Because the spouses are negotiating during this process, what they say is usually kept confidential and can’t later be repeated in a courtroom. Also, negotiation meetings are private. Spouses don’t have to air their dirty laundry like they have to in litigated cases.
Because the spouses are involved in the negotiations, there are no surprises. When spouses take their legal issues to court and a judge decides them, they may not like the outcome or may receive an outcome that was unexpected.
Collaborative divorce cases are less contentious. By their very name, these divorce cases are resolved by the parties working together and having open communication. A team of divorce experts who have specialized training and experience also work together to help the family create a plan that best addresses their needs. Participants in the collaborative divorce process often report being able to have better co-parenting relationships with their exes because they were able to avoid a messy divorce.
Some people are intimidated by courtrooms and legal professionals. Collaborative divorce can occur in a more informal setting where the spouses feel more comfortable.
Control Over the Outcome
Spouses have much more control over the outcome in collaborative divorce cases than in litigated cases. In collaborative divorce, the spouses do not take a back seat. They are an integral part of the process and are heavily involved in negotiations. They have a direct say in the final outcome. They negotiate a result that works best for everyone involved.
Collaborative divorce can help speed up the divorce process. The spouses control when the divorce process concludes. Once they reach a point where they agree on the key terms of their divorce, the process can be wrapped up and the spouses can move on to the next chapter of their lives.
Get Started with the Collaborative Divorce Process
As you can see, there are many benefits to the collaborative divorce process. The first step to begin this process is to talk to your spouse about the type of divorce you want to have. Then, start researching qualified collaborative divorce attorneys in your area.
Valerie Keene is an experienced lawyer and legal writer, editor and content manager. She has provided educational legal content for over a decade, focusing on various practice areas, including family law and estate planning.
Her litigation successes have included wins for cases involving contract disputes, real property disputes, divorce, guardianship and consumer issues. She has worked on cases involving child custody disputes, divorce, domestic violence and incapacitated adults, providing clients with solid legal advice and representation.