An article entitled The Team Approach to Divorce was published in the July 2013 issue of New York Family Law Monthly, an ALM publication. In the article, I explain how the professional-team approach works in the collaborative process and how attorneys who primarily litigate can use aspects of this approach to help settle their family law cases.
Read an excerpt below and the whole article by clicking here.
Using Financial and Mental-Health Professionals When Settling Family Cases
There is a difference, however, in how litigating attorneys and collaborative attorneys use the advice and guidance of these other professionals. Litigating attorneys commonly use them in later stages of the case and bring these professionals in as experts in support of their clients' economic or child-related claims. Collaborative attorneys begin working with financial and mental-health professionals from the inception of the case, with the goal of working together as a team and helping the clients move toward resolution.
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The setting in which Family Law attorneys work is often not a courtroom, but a complicated landscape of their clients' needs and emotions. Because many of these emotions are difficult to experience, it is natural that a divorcing couple might want the process to conclude quickly. But moving forward too quickly without sufficient understanding of each party's true needs and goals risks the integrity of the final product. To ensure a settlement agreement has the durability to last and keep both sides satisfied in the long term, many collaborative professionals use a roadmap that helps to illustrate for their clients the stages of the collaborative law process. This roadmap helps to slow down the tendency to prematurely rush ahead toward solutions that may have little connection to actual interests and goals by helping the parties to see where they're going in the process and also how far they've come.
A TYPICAL COLLABORATIVE ROADMAP IS COMPOSED OF THE FOLLOWING STEPS:
Setting the Framework: This initial phase of the process involves explaining to both parties how the collaborative process works and describing each person's roles and responsibilities.The clients will discuss why they have chosen to work collaboratively and what their goals are for the process. We also "assemble the team," deciding which other professionals will be necessary to help see us through the various issues in the divorce. How can a child specialist or a divorce coach assist in this process? What issues may be more easily resolved by working with a neutral financial professional?
- Gathering Information: Here we identify the potential conflicts that need to be resolved and gather the facts and information about those issues that will help settle them. Different members of the team in place may now be called on to assist. For example, if the divorcing couple has children, at this stage the coaches and child specialist will gather information about the emotional and personal relationships between the couple and their children. We'll want to know whether there are any special needs of the children or emotional issues that must be addressed. The financial professional will start gathering information about the parties' assets, debts and income and the attorneys and clients may have an open discussion about the law at this stage as well.
- Developing a Shared Understanding: This is where we define the interests of the parties. We take a look behind the stated positions of each side to examine not what the parties claim to want, but why they need it. When one spouse insists he or she needs to "keep the house" we look to see what the reasoning behind the request is. Is the real issue that one of the parties needs to stay in this particular home because the carrying charges are low? Or is it because the grandparents live nearby and help out with the child care? The goal here is to get away from blanket positional statements and look at the underlying reasons for those positions.
- Generating and Evaluating Options: By this stage, we are looking to find an actual solution that works for both parties by looking at the available options. Each party will consider and evaluate the options to see whether they satisfy each of their main interests. We can also test out possible solutions. For example, if we're dealing with an issue that is financially related, the financial professional will "run the numbers" and do a side-by-side comparison of the different options under consideration. We can pose the question, "what amount of cash will each party have left after taxes over the next 20 years if we divide the assets this way as opposed to that?" This approach allows each spouse to see what choices are preferable in the long term and make decisions based upon this information.
- Reaching Agreement: When each party is satisfied that its concerns have been addressed and feels secure about the compromises made, it is time to actually draft and sign an agreement. As you can see, by the time we get to this last step, each party has had many opportunities to have his or her voice heard and interests addressed.
An agreement reached by following the collaborative roadmap means more than just the paper it is printed on - it is significant because it was the product of both parties making decisions with all necessary information before them, listening to each other and cooperating with one another. This not only makes the divorce process a lot less unpleasant than an adversarial action in court but can also provide the parties with a method to solve problems together in the future.
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Is 60 the new 40?
If we follow the guideposts reflected in pop culture, the answer is a resounding "yes." The new face of MAC Cosmetics is a 90-year-old woman. Christopher Plummer won this year's best supporting actor Academy Award for his role in Beginners, in which he portrayed a a 70-year-old man who reveals that he is gay following the death of his wife. Online dating services such as Gray Date and Our Time are emerging for singles 50 and up. This could be because the phenomenon of couples divorcing after the age of 50 has grown exponentially in the past two decades.
In my own mediation and law practice, I am seeing a definite trend towards what is known as "Gray" Divorce. While the overall divorce rate has gotten lower, according to Gray Divorce and Remarriage, "Boomers, born between 1946 and 1964 already have a divorce rate triple that of their parents."
Late-life divorces can occur for many of the same reasons that they occur in younger couples including economic issues, lack of intimacy and substance abuse. Interestingly, however, a recent Wall Street Journal article entitled The Gray Divorces explains that infidelity is not a major factor in late-life divorce and that seems to be the case among my clients as well.
A key factor in the rise in these divorces is the increased financial independence of women. A recent study by American Association of Retired Persons (AARP) reported that 66 percent of the divorces studied were initiated by the wife. One reason for this is that women over 50 are more likely to have their own careers and be more financially independent from their husbands than were women of previous generations. I hear many clients explain that they were unhappy for many years, but they stayed together until they knew their children were well settled in their own lives. These clients have often lost an emotional connection to their spouse but are not necessarily angry; they are simply seeking a more fulfilling quality of life as they look at the next 20 or 30 years ahead.
Untangling the tapestry of any marriage brings about legal, financial and emotional challenges, but the issues faced in late-life divorces can be even more challenging. In the coming weeks, I will discuss the unique issues that older couples face when divorcing and how well mediation and the collaborative divorce process meet the needs of these parties.
Additionally, on March 29 from 5:30-7:30 p.m., I will be conducting a workshop Navigating Your Divorce With Dignity in conjunction with Certified Financial Planner and Divorce Financial Analyst Ivy Menchel and and Certified Divorce Coach Karen McMahon. There is no charge, but seating is limited. Please contact me for details.
When collaborative divorce was first developed, it was a process that involved two attorneys and their clients. The attorneys not only counseled and advised their clients about the law, but also about the financial and child-related issues that needed to be resolved. And they did their best to help with the emotional and communication issues that inevitably arose during the divorce process.
Collaborative attorneys eventually realized that while they were the best source of legal information and advice for their clients, this wasn't necessarily the case when it came to financial issues, child development issues and communication issues. Instead, collaborative attorneys realized it made more sense to refer their clients to other professionals who had specialized training in these areas. And that's when the team approach to collaborative divorce began.
Today the New York Association of Collaborative Professionals and other practice groups train financial professionals, divorce coaches and child specialists alongside lawyers in collaborative practice. As a result, the team approach to collaborative divorce has become more commonplace.
How do these other professionals help the clients in a collaborative divorce?
The financial professionals help the attorneys and clients divide the marital property in a way that makes the most sense to meet the short and long-term needs of the parties and their children. They provide tax information and they can help the parties explore different property distribution and support options.
The mental health professionals can play one of three roles. They either act as a divorce coach for an individual client, they act as the neutral divorce coach for the entire team, or they act as a child specialist. Divorce coaches help the clients deal with feelings such as hurt, anger, sadness and fear that will often come up during the divorce process and that can interfere with a client's ability to make smart choices in the negotiation process. Divorce coaches can also help the clients learn how to communicate better with their spouse, their children and even their lawyers during the process. Child specialists bring the voice of the children to the collaborative process and they educate the parents about child development issues that may need to be considered and addressed. The child specialists will then help the parties arrive at a parenting arrangement and decision-making process that works best for themselves and their children.
Is the team approach more expensive than a lawyers-only approach to collaborative divorce?
Finances and cash flow are serious concerns in any divorce and the need to retain other professionals at the outset of the collaborative process can feel daunting. But when clients take their attorney's advice to bring other professionals onto the team, they will save money in the long run. Not only do the financial professionals, divorce coaches and child specialists all charge less per hour than the lawyers, but when clients receive specialized information and advice from these professionals, they are often able to come to an agreement in less time than in cases where the lawyers are being called upon to play multiple roles.