Everyone knows that divorce can be war. Litigating divorce issues is fraught with battles that are filled with arguments, vitriol, and the burning desire to “win.” The emotional and financial toll can be crippling for the parties and their children. In Virginia, divorce trials are public, which means anyone can sit in the courtroom and listen to the most intimate details of your personal life. Divorce can be stressful, expensive, and unpredictable. But it doesn’t have to be.
You may already be familiar with some of the alternative dispute resolution (ADR) approaches to resolve divorce-related issues: you and your spouse can reach an agreement between yourselves; you can attend mediation (with or without attorneys); or you can participate in a settlement conference with your attorneys. However, underlying each of these methods is the immediate threat of litigation if an agreement is not reached. But there is another, lesser-known option to avoid the war of divorce litigation and resolve matters peacefully: collaborative divorce.
Collaborative divorce is designed to resolve divorce issues outside of court, so that agreements can be reached in an environment of dignity and respect. Collaborative divorce saves time, money, and is less damaging to children than the war of litigation. The focus of collaborative divorce is on reaching an agreement that meets the current and future needs of the parties and the family—not on assigning blame. It’s private, confidential, and ensures a level playing field. But how does it work?
Collaborative divorce involves a team approach, that allows the parties to direct the outcome of their divorce with the assistance of professionals. Collaborative professionals work as a team to provide legal and financial expertise, as well as emotional support.
The team consists of the parties, their attorneys, and neutral professionals such as a communications coach, a financial specialist, and (if necessary) a child specialist. The team’s sole goal is to assist the parties in finding an agreeable solution to every issue related to the divorce: from custody and visitation, to the division of property and debt, to the payment of child support and spousal support. All of the attorneys and professionals have been specifically trained in collaborative practice, and are dedicated to helping the parties reach an outcome that works for the entire family. Each team member plays a key role:
- Collaborative Divorce Lawyers. Each party in the divorce is represented by their own lawyer who advises them on all matters of law, from child custody and child support to spousal support and property distribution. Each attorney clarifies their client’s needs and interests as the team works toward developing a “win-win” agreement.
- Communications Coaches. Coaches are licensed mental health professionals and family specialists who assist each spouse in managing the emotions of the divorce and helping the couple learn communication skills that are beneficial in a collaborative divorce. As the couple works with their team in the process, coaches help them maintain a focus on present and future goals.
- Financial Specialists. The financial specialist is a neutral financial consultant who reviews assets and incomes and helps develop viable financial options for both spouses. Collaborative financial specialists provide expertise that helps the team find livable solutions, resolve impasses, and avoid unwanted consequences.
- Child Specialists. Child specialists are key collaborative team members when a couple with children is divorcing. As licensed mental health professionals, they evaluate the needs of the children and offer parents information that will help them make plans in the best interest of the children.
Collaborative Divorce vs. Other Forms of Alternative Dispute Resolution
There are two significant differences between collaborative divorce and almost every other method of alternative dispute resolution.
The first and most important difference between collaborative divorce and most every other form of ADR is that the parties agree NOT to litigate any issues in court. This agreement is essential to the collaborative divorce method. By entering into a collaborative divorce, both parties are making a serious commitment to resolve all issues outside of a courtroom. Of course, if after a serious and good faith effort the parties are ultimately unsuccessful in reaching an agreement, then they can terminate the process and proceed to litigation. However, none of the attorneys or professionals involved can be utilized in litigation—they all are disqualified from being involved in the case going forward. Additionally, nothing that was said or presented in the collaborative divorce process can be used in a trial between the parties. This serves as a great incentive for the parties to continue to work toward an agreeable outcome before resorting to litigation.
The second significant difference between collaborative divorce and other forms of ADR is that the parties agree to provide full disclosure of all information to the other side. This completely transparent exchange of information is very important to the collaborative divorce process. Both parties must be completely open and honest with all data, materials, and evidence that they have. This means that any information that either spouse possesses is immediately disclosed to the entire team. And any information presented by the financial specialist is disclosed to every team member at the same time. This ensures a level playing field, and fosters a respectful dialogue and exchange of ideas. It eliminates the fear that one party will gain an unfair advantage by withholding information.
Costs of Collaborative Divorce
Collaborative divorce is significantly less expensive that fully litigating divorce issues. It is not uncommon for parties to spend a majority of their assets paying the costs associated with litigating a divorce. In addition to attorney’s fees for court appearances, there are costs for discovery, experts, and depositions—and these costs can be substantial. Collaborative divorce is different—the process is driven by the parties, and therefore, they control how much money is expended as they work toward a mutually agreeable resolution. Even with the use of professionals, collaborative divorce often ends up costing one-third of a fully litigated divorce case.
Collaborative divorce offers many benefits for different types of cases. To summarize:
How Collaborative Divorce is Different
- A full team of experts supports both parties.
- Professionals provide quick answers to legal and financial questions.
- Parents receive expert advice on developing a co-parenting plan.
- The process fosters cooperation and communication between the couple.
- The children have a voice through the child specialist.
- The focus is not on who has custody but on how to co-parent as the children transition into having two homes.
Why Collaborative Divorce May Be the Right Choice for You
- Meetings are private and confidential instead of in open court.
- The children’s needs are given priority.
- An atmosphere of respect preserves self-esteem and long-term relationships.
- There is full disclosure of facts and information.
- Face-to-face meetings, with a team of professionals present, make negotiations direct and efficient.
- The couple keeps control of the decisions made.
- The swifter, more amicable process results in less emotional “baggage” and sets the tone for respectful future communication.
- Because it focuses on a “win-win” approach rather than an “I win-you lose” approach, the collaborative method is especially well suited to co-parenting situations and the desire to keep children from being in the middle of custody battles.
If you find yourself facing a divorce, be sure to review your options—including alternative dispute resolution—with an experienced family law attorney in your area. Livesay & Myers, P.C. has a team of experienced family lawyers across offices in Fairfax, Arlington, Ashburn, Manassas and Fredericksburg, representing clients across Northern Virginia. Contact us to schedule a consultation today.