Linda and Norma My parents are 87 years old and I have recently had to face their realities which include limited mobility, increased health problems, and questions about whether they should stay in their home, go to an assisted living facility, or get in home care. It has been hard to talk to them about these issues in part because they are still mentally sound , happily living independently at the end of a dirt road at the edge of the Superior National Forest and enjoying the birds and wildlife which they can only see there. It was hard to make the phone call to them last winter suggesting that a drive at night to a special event one and a half hours from their home was not a good idea. Recently, after my mother suffered several falls resulting in hospital stays, it was hard to talk to her about the assisted care options . I found a good resource with the Minnesota Senior Link at 1-800-333-2433. I talked to someone who gave me a list of resources in their area. These are decisions made by families every day. My family includes my parents, sister and brother, and extended family. Luckily, we seem to be able to communicate and agree on what needs to be done. But there are some families where there are substantial disagreements and conflicts, or no communication at all. For those with disagreements, the collaborative process offers a way to resolve disputes. See for professionals who can help you resolve these disagreements.
For Free Sounds Good to Me! It occurs to me that just as in the rest of our lives, some of the best things in divorce are free. Here are more than a few free items that I came up with on a recent afternoon. Initial Consultation Most importantly, many atttorneys and other divorce professionals offer free (or low cost) initial consultations to help you understand your options.  I enjoy offering free consultations because I can make the most impact on a person’s life by helping them at the very beginning before they waste time and money. General Divorce Information It’s free to keep reading this blog!  There are many helpful articles to help guide your decisions.  You can learn what is involved in divorce and how to choose professionals to help you with the divorce process. Read my Family Law blog called Always Family Center for free information about many Family Law topics. Learn more about Collaborative Divorce here. Want to look through the statute on divorce to get an overview of the law? It’s available for free here. Go to your local library.  They all have a section on divorce and other legal topics.  Why not take advantage of the free books at your local library?  You already paid for it with your taxes, right! Parenting in Divorce You can view an 8 hour online class for divorcing or separating parents called Parents Forever for free or very little cost provided by the University of Minnesota. Children’s Expenses Here is a link to the Minnesota Department of Human Services publication titled Understanding Child Support: A Handbook for Parents. If you are curious about how the Minnesota Guidelines Child Support Calculator works, that’s available for free here. If you want to look through the statute on child support to get a more in-depth view of the law, it’s available for free here. Budgets Do you want to know what your budget is? Just look at your checkbook or last credit or debit card statement and make a list of the most common expenses. Thinking about moving out and living somewhere else and want to know how much it would cost?  For rentals, just look online or make some phone calls from ads in the paper, all for free. Parenting Plans Want to create a great parenting plan?  Consult with a Neutral Child Specialist.  You can find one here.  Look for the area titled “Find a Professional by Profession” and then chose “Child Specialist”. Here is probably the best available court system parenting schedule guide, which happens to be from Arizona (But helpful regardless of where your kids live!).  Here’s the Parenting Agreement Worksheet from the Minnesota Court system.  Again from Minnesota, here is A Parental Guide to Making Child-Foccused Parenting Time Decisions. Sending an email to your child’s other parent to tell them that you appreciate something about their parenting is free. Picking up the phone and talking with your ex about your child’s upcoming events is free (or nearly free). Want to search for a Collaborative Divorce attorney or financial professional or coach or child specialist? It’s right here on the Minnesota Collaborative Law Institute website.
Kids at zebra crossingAngelina Jolie has been a news-maker lately for her courageous decision to disclose her personal health care response to having a breast cancer gene. You may have noticed in her media interviews how often she has referred to “my partner, Brad Pitt.” Jolie and Pitt are among many parents raising children and creating lives together without being married. Some couples do this by choice and others by historic exclusion from the opportunity to get married (an inequitable situation that has changed with the recent passage of marriage equality legislation in Minnesota).

What support options exist for these families when parents make the difficult decision to break up? And what support options exist for parents who never formed a permanent relationship but intend to co-parent? What might Collaborative Team Practice have to offer these parents and families?

Collaborative Team Practice can provide a very stable container for parents seeking to end their partnership in a dignified and respectful way, and to create a road map for future co-parenting. Depending on the legal, financial and parenting issues to be resolved, parents can select a team of professionals specifically tailored to their circumstances and needs. As a neutral child specialist, I have been privileged to work with many non-married couples and non-coupled parents to create developmentally responsive parenting plans to guide co-parenting. These are clients who take to heart the notion that kids deserve the best safe parenting they can get from both parents. The future for these children feels brighter, more hopeful and more coherent.

It takes courage and mindfulness to co-parent after a break up, or if parents have never been in a committed relationship. But we know that effective co-parenting is a cornerstone of health and resilience for children. Parents deserve all the support they can get, and Collaborative Team Practice can help provide that support.

MoneySpousal maintenance, or alimony, is one of the most difficult issues in divorce. How much? How long? Can it be modified? These are the questions that must be answered by divorcing couples. Faced with having to support two households rather than one, money is usually tight. Both parties wonder if they’ll have enough, creating fear all around. Clients ask me, “What would a judge do in my case?” The Minnesota spousal maintenance statute instructs the court to “consider “all relevant factors, including” and lists eight such factors. Predicting how a particular judge will apply the statute in a particular case is impossible. Looking at previous decisions in other cases involving the issue of spousal maintenance can also prove frustrating. Few cases are actually decided by the courts, and the facts in every case are unique, making comparison difficult. Minnesota is not alone in its lack of guidance on this issue. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal reported that several states are currently considering proposals to amend alimony laws. Some of the proposed changes include creating formulas to determine the amount and duration of spousal support. Others call for an end to permanent alimony altogether. While consistency and predictability are admirable goals, I question whether new legislation will produce fairer outcomes. Asking a judge to apply the law can be frightening. Having to live with a third-party’s decision can create resentment. So how can divorcing couples resolve this difficult issue without giving up control of the outcome? The Collaborative divorce process uses interest-based negotiation to guide discussion of spousal maintenance. A financial neutral (hired jointly by the parties) guides them, using the following steps:
  1. Help both parties identify their goals and interests
  2. Gather all relevant information regarding income and budgets
  3. Generate settlement options
  4. Evaluate settlement options
  5. Put the agreement into writing
The Collaborative process requires full disclosure of all financial information by both spouses and encourages honest, respectful discussion. Because both parties have actively participated in the creation of their support agreement, they can move forward with less fear and resentment. This process represents the best way I have found for divorcing couples to resolve this challenging issue. To learn more, visit the Collaborative Law Institute of Minnesota website.
Image courtesy of arztsamui/
Image courtesy of arztsamui/
While much of the focus of the new law legalizing same-sex marriage in Minnesota is focused on the upcoming weddings, the new law also paves the way for same-sex couples to legally divorce once the law goes into effect on August 1, 2013. This has a significant impact on Minnesota same-sex couples who were legally married in other states or countries and have since split up. Minnesota’s current law declared that same-sex marriages from other states were void and no rights were enforceable in Minnesota. For example, suppose you have Bill and Bob, a gay couple who legally married in Vermont in 2001, and then moved to Minnesota. Bill and Bob adopted a son, and Bob decided to stay at home to care for their son while Bill worked.  After 12 years of marriage, they decide to end the marriage. Minnesota law treated this couple as if they had never been married, and they would not have been able to bring a proceeding for divorce. They could have brought custody and child support issues in a legal proceeding, but the law would have treated them like unmarried parents and would not have been able to handle property division or spousal maintenance. But now, the new law signed by Governor Dayton allows Minnesota family courts to recognize marriages performed in other states or countries.  So same-sex couples will now have the ability to pursue a legal divorce just like an opposite-sex couple.  Depending on the facts, Bob might have a claim for spousal maintenance, and the couple’s marital property accumulated during the 11 years of marriage would be subject to an equitable division by the family court. One thing the new Minnesota law cannot fix is the tax implications on property divisions in same-sex divorce. Because of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”), the federal government does not recognize same-sex marriage for tax purposes. And that means same-sex couples who are dividing assets in a divorce, such as retirement accounts, are treated differently by the IRS than opposite-sex couples.  All of that could change in the next couple months when the U.S. Supreme Court rules on the constitutionality of DOMA. With the new law and the impending decision by the Supreme Court,  family lawyers are facing new territory.  This makes the collaborative divorce process an attractive option for same-sex couples. The collaborative divorce process allows for a couple to honor their relationship and craft customized solutions to handle the changes to the law. Bill and Bob can have a respectful divorce, work together as effective co-parents, and remarry when they find new love in the future.
Abraham Lincoln, one of my heroes, spoke to a divided nation in 1861 and expressed a hope that everyone, north and south,  would be touched by “the better angels of our nature”.     file3921269374368 These poetic words are often ringing in my ears when I sit with a divorcing couple hoping that they might be able to summon their best selves during difficult times. Divorce can be so emotionally challenging that it is easy to excuse people who cannot bring their better angels to the process.  It would be wrong to judge anyone who, when facing divorce, becomes so blinded by fear or anger that they seem unable to summon their better natures. Yet, as a divorce attorney, someone who has a responsibility to help clients achieve better results, I cannot escape the fact that my job requires me to help them, (and if possible their spouse) find their better selves.  I do know from nearly three decades of experience that they will make better decisions and get better outcomes, particularly for their children, if they can find their “better angels”. Until ten years ago, I did not think it was even possible to help clients find their better selves. Hardened by 20 years of practicing divorce law, I had come to believe that I had to, for the most part, accept irrational and self destructive behavior from my clients.   However, during the past ten years, through the Collaborative Process, I have found that there are ways to help people find their better selves and, therefore, achieve better outcomes. This has been partly due to the training that I have received from my Collaborative Colleagues to help clients in new ways.  It is strengthened by the fact that the other attorney will work with my client’s spouse in the same manner; and by the fact that the clients can get the support of a child specialist, financial neutral and coach who will help them both bring their best selves to the table.
2010-07-20_Black_windup_alarm_clock_faceA frequent question asked during an initial phone call or meeting with a client is “When will I be divorced?” The answer is “It depends.” It depends on whether or not there are issues in dispute, what those issues are, how far apart you are on those issues, and whether emotions may impede resolution of those issues. There are a range of possible timelines. On the fast end is a very simple divorce with no children and very few assets, with both people agreeing on how to divide the assets. It usually will take an attorney about a week or less to draft the necessary legal documents (assuming all the necessary information has been provided to the attorney) and, if there is another attorney, the time needed by that attorney to review the documents. The next step, signing the documents, can be accomplished in a matter of days if both spouses are prompt in doing so. Once the documents are filed with the court, a judge will be assigned to the case and will review and sign the document (if it is acceptable and in proper form) within a month of filing of the documents. Even in those situations in which the couple thinks they have an agreement, it may be helpful to work with professionals who are trained in the collaborative process, and who are committed to helping them reach agreement, but also who can help identify issues that the couple has not addressed. Couples who “do their own divorce” sometimes miss issues that can create future conflict and possible litigation. More time will be needed if there are disputed issues involving parenting time, financial or other issues. The key in these situations is finding the resources to help the couple ultimately reach an agreement. Some cases drag on, not because of complex issues, but because the spouses are engaging in emotionally charged behavior creating obstacles to reaching agreement. Couples who work with neutral experts (rather than two competing experts) and with coaches and child specialists can avoid some of the common causes of protracted delays. Attorneys trained to facilitate settlement agreements can also help you make better use of your time. For names of professionals trained in the collaborative divorce process, visit the Collaborative Law Institute of MN website here. The more contentious cases which are not resolved by agreement may not go to a final court hearing or trial for a year or more. Since close to 97% of divorce cases in Minnesota are resolved by agreement, not trial, the process you use to reach an agreement will affect both the length of time needed and the quality of the agreement.

The most common mistake I have seen couples make during divorce might surprise you. It’s something that is done unknowingly. It’s done with good intentions. It’s something our culture has taught us to do.

So what is it? It’s choosing an attorney before choosing a process. When confronted with the reality of separation or divorce, your first step may be to ask friends, co-workers or family members for the names of good family law attorneys. Seeking a referral from a trusted acquaintance seems to make sense given the extremely personal nature of this legal event. It certainly is preferable to doing a Google search.

It’s important to realize, however, that, in addition to having varying degrees of competence, different attorneys use diverse methods of conflict resolution. A well-intentioned family member or friend may recommend a litigation attorney who is most comfortable in a courtroom. If you think you will need a judge’s help in reaching a fair resolution, you should look for a lawyer with this particular skill set. On the other hand, if you are more concerned about the impact your separation will have on your children, and prefer to maintain more privacy and control during the process, Collaborative practice may be a better process option for you and your family. If that’s the case, you and your spouse or partner should look for attorneys who specialize in the Collaborative process.

Separation and divorce are among life’s most challenging events. Choosing the right process first, then attorneys, is the safest way to proceed.

serenity-prayerMany recovering alcoholics claim that the wisdom of The Serenity Prayer saved their life.  I have found in my practice that the wisdom contained in this simple prayer can also serve as an essential guide for helping people through a difficult divorce. The Serenity Prayer, which asks for the serenity to accept the things you cannot change; the power to change the things you can and the wisdom to know the difference, provides an important framework for dealing with almost all difficult situations. Divorce almost always creates unfortunate realities that lie outside our control; the fact that you will not see your children on certain days; the reality that your family income will now be spread through two homes; and many other stubborn truths.  These realities cannot be changed and, in the end, the ability to find acceptance and serenity is a worthy goal. Divorce also requires people to summon courage to address daunting challenges; finding ways to co-parent when you are angry or scared; learning to manage new financial challenges; or trying to communicate effectively in painful situations.  People who find this courage in divorce are much more likely to achieve their goals. Finally, gaining wisdom about which areas need acceptance and which challenges require us to act courageously is often the ultimate challenge in a divorce.  While some of this wisdom may come from divorce sources, some of the wisdom can be gathered by finding people you can trust to help you focus  your time and energy on your most important goals. One thing I like about the Collaborative Divorce Process  is the focus on giving people the tools they need to truly help themselves.  The first step in the process is generally to help clients identify their highest goals.  As the process evolves divorcing couples are counseled to accept the things beyond their control so that they can focus their attention and limited resources on the things that truly matter.  Clients who truly commit themselves to these principles can move from chaos to a new sense of order; sometimes even a deep sense of serenity.  In any case,  I have found that giving people the opportunity to gain wisdom about when to  “let go” and when to work for change is the most important part of a divorce attorney’s job.

“I hope we can be friends.”  This is not an uncommon wish of one or both people when going through a divorce.  Sometimes, however, there is a lot of pain and anguish going on for at least one of them and significant negative energy between the couple.  “How did we get like this?” is another frequent question I hear in my practice.  So how do we answer the question and can you become friends?  It is helpful to think about how relationships develop in order to answer the question.  I heard Isolina Ricci, speak to a group of mental health professionals and attorneys about her research around divorce and families a couple years ago.  She introduced a very helpful concept that I often share with clients to help them understand whether and how they can be friends.

When we meet people, we start with a business relationship.  We use more formal language, make few assumptions, make clear agreements, have minimal expectations and are not very attached to or invested in the relationship.  Ricci notes that we are private, explicit, cool and reserved.  As we get to know someone and move to friendship, we are less formal, begin to make assumptions and have expectations and are therefore more invested in the relationship.  When the relationship becomes intimate, we become very informal with each other, act based on assumptions formed from past experiences with the individual, give the benefit of the doubt, and are very invested in the relationship.  Ricci notes that we are vulnerable, implicit, hot and intense. However, when we reach the point of divorce, the relationship has moved from one of positive intimacy to negative intimacy.  We move from the positive qualities of intimacy to the opposite of those qualities, (i.e., shared to abused confidences, loyalty and trust to disloyalty and distrust, positive assumptions to negative assumptions, benefit-of-doubt to suspicion and blame, for example).  What we need to realize is that when we are in a place of negative intimacy, we cannot simply go back to friendship.  In order to become friends, we need to move from negative intimacy back to the business relationship and then rebuild to friendship from there.  Ricci calls this the detox-negative-intimacy, where we reset to a business-like relationship. In the Collaborative process, we actually help people learn how to step back to the business relationship by modeling respectful communication, not make assumptions but ask questions to clarify, strive to be trustworthy, make clear agreements, create healthy boundaries relating to times and means of communication, and sticking to facts rather than being emotionally reactive.  And this is very hard work!  But, by making the intentional effort to go back to a business relationship, we can start rebuilding trust by honoring agreements, getting rid of unproductive assumptions by asking clarifying questions, and redeveloping a give-and-take relationship.  Over time, it is possible to create a business like friendly relationship.