Divorce will never be a walk in the park, but it doesn't have to be a traumatic process, either.
So say practitioners of collaborative divorce, a relatively new approach that avoids the court system and puts negotiations and decisions directly in the hands of the spouses—with help from specially trained attorneys and neutral support professionals.
"One of the first choices people have to make is: What process do they want to use? Do they want the nuclear option—litigation—or peaceful resolution? When people go into litigation, they use their attorneys to carry their swords into battles," said Ross M. Evans, attorney with Katz, Greenberger & Norton in Cincinnati and president of the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals.
Collaborative divorce differs from mediation, where the couple works only with one neutral party—the mediator. In the collaborative process, each spouse has an attorney who looks out for the best interests of his or her client, while working within a collaborative framework. Both parties, and professionals, literally sit at the table for periodic meetings to identify issues and solutions.
The duration of the process depends on the complexity of the family situation. A 2010 IACP survey found that 58 percent of cases were completed in less than nine months.
While costs depend on factors such as hourly fees, the number of meetings held and the number of professionals involved, the average case ranges from $17,800 (no children involved), to $25,600 (cases with children subject to the legal process), according to the IACP. Several financial advisors interviewed for this story suggested litigation may cost three times or more than the collaborative option.
Types of Divorces
Source: Cathy Daigle
"Working within complete transparency can minimize the legal fees because it makes your expectations realistic," said financial advisor Lisa Gresham, founder of Equitable Divorce Solutions. "You've removed the unknown, and you're more effective in your negotiations and your use of time because you're not going back and forth."
Financial advisors see the toll divorce takes on their clients.
"You can tell who's gone through the collaborative process vs. litigation," said Amy Wolff, certified financial planner and owner of AJW Financial, who specializes in the financial issues associated with divorce. "The clients who have used the collaborative option emerge from the process more ready to focus; they can bounce back more quickly."
Wolff, who splits her time evenly between being a traditional financial advisor and what's termed a "financial neutral," added that "the ones who went through litigation seem worn out and exhausted; they often need a year or so to recover before they're able to focus."
Financial neutrals serve as an advisor to both spouses, providing financial guidance and planning and facilitating joint financial decisions to bring about optimal results for both parties.
The clients' longtime advisors can play an important role within the collaborative paradigm, said financial neutral Cathy Daigle, a certified financial planner and owner of financial divorce consultancy Cathy Daigle.
4 key elements of collaborative practice
"We're building and enhancing their relationships with their clients by engaging them as part of the process," Daigle said. "They want to put their clients in good hands."
She added, "We'll engage them in the collaborative process to educate us about the clients' assets, especially in the cases of high-net-worth families. We also consult with the advisors about the parties' equity incentives, such as restricted stock units."
Specialized financial neutrals also address other family needs.
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Gigi Robson, certified public accountant and owner of Respond, which specializes in divorces and business dissolutions, said she sees two major aspects to her role: "First, education; typically, one of the spouses is less financially savvy than the other," she said. "And secondly, it's for the children; parents need to learn to work financially together for years."
Alan Weinstein, 52, of Cincinnati, said he and his ex-wife chose a collaborative divorce "first and foremost for our kids." An account manager for a global chemical company, Weinstein used the collaborative process not only for his divorce but also for a subsequent prenuptial agreement.
In the collaborative divorce process, neutral professionals are engaged, as needed, to represent the best interests of the spouses and their children. Consultants may include:
—financial neutrals, who help with tax considerations, financial projects, financial and child support calculations.
—child specialists, who advocate for kids' best interests, to help the parents develop a mutually acceptable parenting plan.
—mental health professionals, who help adults navigate emotional currents.
—business valuators, especially if a family business is involved.
—real estate evaluators, often used for jointly-owned commercial property.
"My teenage girls knew [my ex-wife and I] were meeting to talk about things," he said. "There was comfort in that fact. It was less fear-inducing because they didn't hear about judges and courts," added Weinstein. "Their idea of divorce was from what they saw on TV: lawyers and fighting."
The collaborative process sets up a different mindset in several ways.
"Parents come in with a different vocabulary; instead of talking about custody, we're talking about parenting time," said psychologist Deborah Clemmensen, a neutral child specialist from Edina, Minn. "It's family time, not a legal event."
(Neutral child specialists are mental health professionals trained in both psychology and the principles of collaborative law and alternative dispute resolution.)
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The outcome focus is different, Clemmensen said.
"The further you get into litigation, the more money you spend, and the more you want to win," she added. "With collaborative divorce, the focus is on win-win."