A lot of attention and publicity is being generated around a new approach to divorce – the Collaborative Divorce.  So what it is it, how is it different from “regular” divorces, and, most importantly, is it really better?

First of all, Collaborative Divorce is both an approach to, and a process for, Divorce.  Each party retains their own lawyer who, as in traditional divorce cases, advocate on their client’s behalf.  The attorneys aide in focusing the dispute to the legal issues and reaching a result consistent with what the parties would have obtained had they proceeded to court – except the Collaborative Process can do in weeks what it takes the court months to accomplish.  There are no formal filings thus no unnecessary legal fees, no waiting for court dates and no down time waiting in court for your case to be called.  This translates into less waste and minimizes billable hours and court costs. 

The Collaborative process typically involves numerous meetings with both the parties and the attorneys present.  These “four way” meetings allow the parties to prioritize the issues – addressing the most urgent, such as support, custody, the sale of a house or assets – before moving on to issues that can wait, such as dividing retirement accounts or having assets appraised.   Four ways rarely happens in a typical litigated divorce, and if they do it usually only happens at the very end of the litigation when the parties are desperately trying to settle the case the day before trial.  Choosing the Collaborative process frees the parties from being bogged down with court procedure, overburdened court calendars and layers of bureaucracy.  Generally most Collaborative cases dispense with the need for the parties to ever even step foot in a courtroom.

At the first meeting the parties and their lawyers enter into a “Participation Agreement” that sets forth the commitments in the Collaborative Divorce including the agreement that all issues will be settled prior to a divorce complaint ever being filed.  Once both parties have retained their Collaborative attorneys the lawyers then set the agenda for the series of four ways.  The lawyers will commit to managing the conflict, developing the legal issues and controlling the emotional issues.  Each party’s attorney is an advocate for that party.  Collaborative attorney are not mediators.  They advocate for their clients but with the goal of obtaining a result comparable to what a court would award.

Often times it is necessary to reach out to a detached and neutral expert – such as a custody evaluator, business appraiser, certified divorce planner, or financial or tax expert to resolve certain disputes or evaluate assets or develop a plan to preserve as much of the estate as possible.  This is comparable to the use of experts in traditional divorce without the costs associated to have them testify at trial.

Ultimately, the goal is to prepare a formal legally binding agreement signed by the parties which resolves all issues related to property distribution, support, child custody and other issues pertaining to the divorce.  The collaborative process is successful in obtaining such an agreement in about 97% of the cases.  In the 3% where a settlement is not reached – the collaborative attorneys must terminate their representation of the parties. 

What are the benefits? 

  • Cost – Attorneys fees are generally half of what a typical litigated divorce may cost you.  Why? There will be no formal pleadings drafted, no waiting in court, no government bureaucracy to navigate.  The four way meetings save everyone time while the attorneys focus the parties on the legal issues which need to be resolved.
  • Time – Skilled collaborative attorneys can resolve in one session what it may take a court months to resolve.
  • Outcome – Your voice is heard.  The parties control the outcome – not a judge who may only hear a days worth of facts. 
  • Privacy – With no public documents being filed the whole divorce, and the private facts underlying the divorce, remain private.  No prying eyes. No embarrassing details.        
  • Satisfaction – Parties who have undergone the collaborative process report a greater feeling satisfaction in the end result and greater participation in the process.
  •  Dignity – The collaborative process has proven to minimize hostility and allow the parties to “turn the page” on a new chapter in their life while promoting healthy communication between the parties – an invaluable benefit if children are involved.

The attraction to the Collaborative Process is not just for the parties who are struggling financially and want to save on legal fees – the benefits apply to all size divorces.  Madonna and Guy Ritchie recently committed to the Collaborative process and successfully (and quickly and quietly) obtained their divorce.

To begin the Collaborative process you need to meet with a Collaborative Attorney.  The attorney should be a member of an accredited organization – such as the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals.  You should then look for an attorney who is a member of a Collaborative practice group in the county where the divorce would likely be finalized.  As with the selection of any attorney – do your homework.  Review the attorney’s credentials.  Make sure you select an attorney who concentrates their practice in the areas of Divorce and Family law.  The selection of your attorney may be the single most important decision in your divorce.