Many of my clients choose collaborative divorce as the means by which they dissolve their marriage and move into their post-divorce lives – especially if they have children together and want to maintain as positive a co-parenting relationship as possible once they are divorced. This post will discuss some of the nuts and bolts of how the process works once a couple decides to use the collaborative divorce process.
1. Assembling the Team – Because collaborative divorce treats the divorce like a problem to be solved rather than a competition between the parties, the process is set up to deal with all three of the dimensions of issues that come up for people going through divorce – legal, financial, and emotional. As a result, one of the first steps of the process is assembling the team of professionals who will work with the parties. The first step is for both clients to hire their own individual attorney who is trained in collaborative divorce. The lawyers then typically recommend a neutral mental health professional (collaborative divorce coach) as well as a financial neutral (typically a CFP or CPA) to work with the parties as well. The clients then schedule individual intake sessions with each of the neutral professionals. Soon thereafter, the parties execute a Collaborative Divorce Participation Agreement that lays out the parameters of the process in detail, including the parties contractually binding themselves to full and fair disclosure of all of the financial information needed to fully inform both parties of the finances before they sign settlement documents.
2. Information Gathering – The next stage of the process involves all three professionals working with the parties to gather the information they will need in order to make good settlement decisions. Because collaborative divorce is tracking more than just the purely legal aspects of the divorce, the “information” that is gathered is defined more broadly. For example, the Coach works with the parties to understand their personalities, emotional state, and values as helpful background heading into the negotiations. Similarly, the Financial Neutral and Attorneys work with the parties to gather all of the relevant financial documents and information so that the parties have a complete picture of all of the marital and separate assets and debts of the parties. The information gathering process can include formal business valuations, house appraisals, and obtaining any other information that the parties think will be useful in the settlement process.
3. Option Generation – The Option Generation process in collaborative divorce replaces the positional exchange of proposals and counterproposals that are the hallmark of negotiation in the traditional litigation context. For any given issue in the divorce (e.g. property/ debt division) each party works with his or her attorney, and often also with one or both of the neutrals, to come up with two or three settlement scenarios that the party thinks would work for the family as a whole (not only the one party generating the option), taking into account logistical, emotional/ psychological, legal, and financial interests at play in the case. The full team then meets as a group for a series of team meetings to discuss and process the various settlement options that are on the table until an agreement is reached on all of the issues in the divorce, which often includes pulling bits and pieces from multiple options and/or the generation of completely new options in real time in the team meeting. Often the Option Generation stage will reveal that more information is needed in order to choose the best option, so there can be fluidity between the Information Gathering and Option Generation stages.
4. Solutions and Settlement – Once the parties have chosen the solutions that will work best for their family under the circumstances, the Attorneys prepare the same settlement documents that are used in any uncontested divorce in Middle Tennessee – a Marital Dissolution Agreement and a Permanent Parenting Plan – that capture the parties’ agreement within the bounds of the law. In almost all collaborative divorce cases, the attorneys also prepare a Joint Sworn Asset and Liability Statement where both parties swear and affirm under oath that they have disclosed all of the assets and debts in the marital estate. Finally, the attorney for the party who filed for divorce goes with his or her client to the final hearing where if the settlement documents meet the Court’s approval, the divorce is granted on the ground of irreconcilable differences.