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Collaborative Divorce Offers Options To Court Battles

9:01 AM, Mar 21, 2013   |    comments
(JOHN PARTIPILO JOHN PARTIPILO/THE TENNESSEAN)
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(USA TODAY) -- Divorce has a bad rep.

The idea conjures thoughts of angry spouses and dueling attorneys disputing everything from money to kids in court.

Sandy Arons dreaded that.

"We didn't want an adversarial route, but I saw the attorneys positioning it that way," said Arons, whose divorce was final in 2008.

She and her husband, who also wanted to preserve family harmony, took charge of their own agreement. Arons has a financial background, so she tackled the money aspects. She hired therapists for herself and her children.

"I created this collaborative divorce, sort of ad hoc," she said, because at the time, no Nashville-area attorneys were familiar with the collaborative process for divorce. The couple, baffling lawyers along the way, negotiated an amicable split.

The collaborative divorce concept -- a problem-solving, teamwork approach to divorce -- began in Minnesota in the 1980s, said Nashville attorney Caroline Beauchamp. She's among a small group of local lawyers who have trained in collaborative practice since 2009.

John Hussey's divorce was final in November. Hussey's a director, producer and editor with Nashville visual communications company PK Pictures. He said he and his wife chose collaborative divorce "because early on, both of us realized minimizing hostility during the divorce process would probably make it as easy on the kids as it can be."

The collaborative team may include attorneys, a financial adviser, counselors and/or various coaches, Kuhn explained. Divorce coaches, such as Barbara Sanders, who also is a Nashville psychotherapist, help couples decide if they truly want a divorce, whether collaboration is best for them, and to set goals. They also help keep the peace.

"In divorce, everybody's in crisis, everybody's emotional," Sanders said. "We try to keep it calm."

Keep it out of court

The key distinction between collaboration and traditional divorce is that in collaboration, the parties agree not to litigate (argue the settlement's details in court), though a collaborative settlement must also get a judge's approval at the end. Attorneys involved should be those trained in the collaborative process, Kuhn said.

"Instead of being litigators, you're more like a transactional lawyer, lawyers who do business deals," Kuhn said.

Spouses need to negotiate anything from a family business to child care.

For example, child support payments typically stop when a child turns 18, Arons said. "That didn't make sense for our family, for a variety of reasons," she said. "For me, it goes through college. My attorney said, 'You won't get child support through college.' But me and my ex knew what was best. I got it."

If collaboration breaks down, a spouse can turn to court, but they must hire a different lawyer than the one retained for the collaboration, Kuhn said. That gives attorneys an incentive to work together.

Beauchamp and Kuhn said collaboration offers advantages over conventional litigated divorce:

-- Clients have more control over the timetable, because it's not set by a judge. That's usually good, though Hussey noted that if one spouse slows the process, the other can't turn to a judge to speed things up.

-- It's less expensive, and usually quicker, because attorneys don't prepare blizzards of motions for court.

For example, in litigated divorce, spouses may appraise a family business at different amounts; then, their financial experts must argue over valuation in court, Beauchamp said. In collaboration, that conversation takes place outside court, probably with a single neutral appraiser.

-- Finally, as Hussey emphasized, collaboration is generally psychologically easier on children. Lawyers say many studies show that the more contentious the divorce, the more trouble children have adjusting in the aftermath. The communicative tone set in collaboration carries over into spouses' post-divorce relationship, Beauchamp added.

Arons agrees. If you have kids, "you're going to see (your ex) through college graduation, and through grandchildren being born," she said.

Do you want a decent relationship, she asked, or do you want to ruin your daughter's wedding?

Arons was so pleased by the collaborative process that she launched Arons & Associates Divorce Planning, offering financial counseling to divorcing couples. Most people don't fully understand their finances, and divorce is the top cause of bankruptcies, she said.

Hussey cautioned that collaboration "doesn't eliminate the difficult part of divorce" -- sorting through painfully difficult problems. But it makes the process more "graceful."

The point, he said, is "to create cooperation rather than create aggravation."


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