Special to the Star-Telegram; republished with permission of the author
When Francie Cooper knew her 25-year marriage was ending, she looked for a simpler way to dissolve it legally. The Fort Worth resident said she found it through a relatively new process called collaborative law. “It was a very noncontentious process,” she said. “It left us feeling much more whole than we would have otherwise. While divorce is never an easy process, I would recommend this to anybody.”
Collaborative law takes the traditional long and costly courtroom process that can add to the emotional weight of a divorce and moves it to cooperative negotiations among all parties. And it’s growing fast: In 2001, Texas was the first state to adopt a collaborative-law statute. Hundreds of Texas lawyers, including about 30 in Tarrant County, have been trained in the collaborative-law process, according to Diane Wanger, a Bedford family lawyer. She has overseen 20 collaborative-law divorces, 14 of them in the past year. “It’s still on the cutting edge of family law,” Wanger said. “But where I might advise it before to my clients, now people are calling me to say they’re interested in collaborative law. It’s growing exponentially.”
The heart of collaborative law requires cooperation between the splitting spouses and their attorneys in an effort to preserve the relationship in some way. Everyone works in scheduled meetings toward a final, private agreement, bypassing the court system. Spouses must sign an agreement up front that they will be civil and not bring up past infractions in the relationship. Attorneys for each spouse must agree that they will not hide or distort information or allow a mistake on the other side to stand, even if it favors their client.
Attorneys also must agree not to represent their client in traditional litigation if the process fails. “There are ground rules for communication that are helpful,” Cooper said. “There isn’t room for sniping remarks or bringing up the past.”
Nationwide, there are about 3,500 collaborative lawyers in 30 states, according to Dallas lawyer Janet Brumley, author of Divorce Without Disaster: Collaborative Law in Texas. The collaborative-law process can save time and money.
Tina Brown of Dallas, who has been through both legal processes for her two divorces, said her litigated divorce took 18 months, while her collaborative divorce took just two months. “The longer it takes, the more unhealthy it is for everybody,” Brown said. “In collaborative law, you’re channeling all those emotions that lead to anger and frustration into practical solutions.”
Collaborative law divorces typically take nine months to a year to complete, Wanger said. In comparison, a divorce through the courts can take two to three years, she added. The cost of a divorce under collaborative law averages about one-third that of a litigated divorce in attorneys fees, according to a survey in American Lawyer magazine. Beyond the potential savings, Brumley contends that collaborative law has numerous other benefits.
“Pursuing divorce collaboratively can save you everything — time, your children’s self-esteem, friendships, privacy, assets and whatever relationship you have left with your spouse,” she writes. Another important piece to the collaborative-law process is the use of a neutral financial planner to evaluate the couple’s assets and liabilities, and to help provide an equitable financial settlement, said Scott Clarke, a certified divorce financial adviser in Hurst who works on collaborative-law cases.
In addition to evaluating what the couple has, the financial adviser and attorneys help the couple focus on what they want in the future. “We talk to clients about what I call the hot spots, what’s really important to them,” Clarke said. “Do they want to stay in the house? What does financial security mean to them? Are there tax advantages that make alimony work for both of them?”
Another partner generally used in the process, a mental health professional, helps to defuse the potentially explosive nature of divorce, Wanger said. “One of my cases was almost a failure, but then the couple spent five hours with a mental health facilitator,” she said. “It got them back on track.”
While collaborative law is gaining a footing with divorce proceedings in Texas, it clearly isn’t for everyone, Brumley says. Divorces involving spousal abuse or family violence, or a lack of honesty by both parties, may make a collaborative proceeding inappropriate, Brumley contends. “If you value working toward a peaceful, amicable solution over winning at all costs, your values will be honored in the collaborative-law process,” Brumley writes.
Teresa McUsic’s Column Appears Mondays and Fridays in the (Fort Worth) Star Telegram. Teresa McUsic 817-460-5514 TmcUsic-at-savvyconsumer.net
For more information on collaborative law, see the website of Collaborative Family Lawyers of South Florida for information about the local association and its member lawyers in Broward and South Palm Beach County.