Potential divorce clients often ask, how much does a collaborative divorce cost? Great question, it differs with each case and is dependent on clients and their level of conflict regardless of process. The more conflict a couple brings to any divorce process the more expensive it will be. Bottom line, conflict is expensive. Butting heads together to argue positions vs. putting heads together to solve problems will always increase costs. In a collaborative divorce, we focus on putting heads together which should decrease costs. As a financial neutral in the collaborative process, I have given this cost question serious thought. I wrestle with how you define cost. Do we measure cost only in terms of dollars and cents or is there something beyond the almighty dollar? I think the latter. I remember a couple who owned a business that I worked with in a collaborative divorce. By simply suggesting an alternative to using retirement fund money (client plan) to pay off a rather large debt, I was able to save them about $9,000 in income taxes. I seriously doubt anyone other than a well-trained financial professional would have noticed this. What about the cost savings of better-adjusted children of divorce because of their parents taking a higher road with less tension and conflict allowing both parents to effectively co-parent to create and environment where children are not placed in the middle of parental conflict? What about the cost of the stress and delays that typically occur with a traditional court based divorce? How do you place a number on the cost of destroyed relationships with spouses, children, extended family members such as in-laws and friends? How can one put a dollar value on these? Theoretically, a collaborative divorce should cost less. Attorney involvement in a collaborative divorce is typically less than in a traditional court based model. This occurs since other professionals, usually at lower hourly rates, provide many services historically provided by attorneys. Some attorneys choose not to become collaborative divorce practitioners because of this. Some traditional court based attorneys will say they do not believe that it is in the best interest of their client to have to withdraw from representing their client if the case does not settle in the collaborative process. The withdrawal provision if a case should go to court, is a key feature of collaborative divorce because it places everyone’s focus and interests, attorneys and clients, on finding solutions that take into account the highest priorities of both spouses and their children instead of arguing positions ad infinitum. This committed agreement for attorneys and clients to settle is, in my opinion, a good thing for divorcing spouses. It helps provide the framework for a less costly divorce and as I said earlier, I am not talking only about money. One of my goals working with couples or individuals is to reduce their divorce costs whenever and wherever we can so the family can keep more of its hard-earned money. One very simple illustration of how a financial neutral helps lower costs is in gathering financial information necessary for any divorce. It works like this. The financial neutral gathers All the financial documents from the clients that attorneys will ultimately need such as ALL assets and liability account statements including bank and credit card statements, non-retirement investments and savings, pension and retirement accounts, real estate documents, business documents if any, tax returns, pay check stubs etc. The financial neutral then, organizes and presents all of this information to both attorneys. Contrast this with each client having to provide all of this information to each of their attorneys. Attorneys usually have the highest hourly rates. Rather than paying two attorneys the couple pays, one financial professional, to perform this function. This one-step in the process can easily save a couple up to two thousand dollars. When minor children are involved, a neutral child specialist will meet with the parents to help them create parenting plans that are in the best interest of the child. The child specialist usually conducts these meetings without an attorney present. A neutral coach, when engaged by a couple, meets with the clients without attorneys to facilitate communication plans throughout the divorce process and looking ahead in the couple’s relationship post divorce. The child specialist and neutral coaches typically have the lowest hourly rates in the process of all professionals. Sometimes clients choose not to hire a neutral coach. In my experience, having a coach on board can help decrease tension and improve communication between spouses during the process. Less tension and conflict should lead to lower cost and more importantly stronger relationships post divorce. Well, I really have not given you a definitive answer on how much a collaborative divorce costs, because I cannot. Every couple and family is unique. Couples themselves determine, often unconsciously, how much their divorce will cost. Cost is directly a function of the level of conflict they bring into and maintain throughout the process. Ultimately, I think it boils down to what the couple wants. If they want a largely attorney driven process and someone else to make decisions for them about their children and their future then perhaps the more traditional court based process is for them. If on the other hand the couple wants to have less attorney involvement, make decisions for themselves and their children instead of someone else deciding then a collaborative divorce may be a better choice. If I could leave you with anything from this post, it would be to remember theoretically a collaborative divorce should cost less and that cost is more than just money. You control your journey and your destination. Choose wisely.
Remember that old rhyme from childhood, “First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes a baby in a baby carriage”? Some things are just part of life and are simply inevitable. People will fall in love. People will join together in relationships. These are all positive, great things. Unfortunately, people—whether gay or straight—all have struggles in life and relationships. Inevitably, when Minnesota granted same-sex couples the right to marry, it was inevitable that same-sex divorces would happen, just as opposite-sex divorces happen. Gay couples who married before marriage was legal in Minnesota—whether they became married in another state or, because Minnesota borders with Canada, often in another country—may now face the need to obtain a divorce. If a gay couple separates and does not intend to share their lives together going forward, they should strongly consider finalizing their separation by obtaining a legal divorce in Minnesota. I have run into Minnesota gay couples who had no idea that they are now legally married. This viewpoint may be especially common for those couples who married in Canada years ago and then separated long before marriage was legal in Minnesota. For better or worse (pun intended), those couples continue to be married and need to divorce in order to clear up the division of their marital assets and debts. If they have children in common by adoption they need to determine their rights and responsibilities as to those children. Even if there is a non-joint child, which is common in same-sex marriages, the “non-parent” may be able to establish legally enforceable rights to visitation because of their significant connection with that child. Again, this is even though they are not legally “their” child. Because marriage creates an interest in real property (houses, etc.), the residence that the couple lived in or any other land and any mortgages (and any other debts) need to be addressed in the divorce. Before same-sex marriage was legal in Minnesota, it was difficult for same-sex couples to form legally enforceable rights and responsibilities related to a committed relationship. Perhaps that is why some same-sex couples have a hard time believing that they now must use the legal system to fully end their marriage relationship. By the way, I understand that Brangelina (Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, for those who don’t follow popular culture!) had declared they wouldn’t get married until same sex couples everywhere could get married…but apparently they couldn’t wait, because they were recently married. Well, my theory is that they had to wait until Minnesota made same-sex marriage legal (it just took a year to plan the wedding)! Without getting divorced, a gay couple may find out later, to their surprise, that one of the pair is making a claim to part of the other’s retirement account or is holding up the sale or transfer of property that was owned during the marriage, because simply living separately doesn’t resolve all these issues. I expect that many same-sex couples will be unpleasantly surprised later in life that when they hear that they have to share their retirement with a partner from long ago that they never intended to share their retirement account with. Or, an inheritance may be held up–or never received as expected by a son or daughter–because of a claim for all or a share of the estate of a deceased same-sex spouse. These are topics that are addressed well in the Collaborative Process because they can be approached from a perspective of respect and honoring of the love that the couple previously shared, while laying a foundation for future separate lives. Now that same-sex marriage is legal Minnesota, same-sex couples may likely find that the Collaborative Divorce process provides the proper legal, financial and other professional supports needed for disentangling the various legal rights and responsibilities incident to ending their legal marriage.
It may be hard to believe, but 2014 is two-thirds of the way over. Did you set a new year’s goal that you have long forgotten about? Now is as good of time as any to set a new goal and hold yourself accountable. With the kids going back to school maybe you will be getting up extra early anyhow or have time after you drop them off at the bus stop to get a quick workout in? With schedules changing, now is the time to add a new health and fitness goal into your routine. With cooler temperatures and the leaves changing colors, fall is the perfect season to take up exercising outdoors. Taking on a physical challenge, like running, after divorce is very common. It may be the desire to be in better shape, desire to prove to yourself that you can accomplish a goal, or maybe it’s just to pass the extra time you may now have, especially if you have children that are now being “shared.” Getting started in walking, running, or joining a gym not only boosts confidence, but it is also a great way to meet new friends. Do you need another great reason to start working out post-divorce? It’s a proven stress reliever, something everyone can benefit from. Many fun fall runs around the Twin Cities have caught our eye recently – the Glo Run, Hot Chocolate run, Monster Dash, and turkey trots, oh my! Grab a friend, sign up together, and have fun doing it! You don’t have to be fast, it’s all about goal settling and doing something for YOU!
Parties going through a divorce need to understand that advocacy in the “rights-based” Court Model and advocacy in the “interest-based” Collaborative Model are different; and advocacy in each of these models feels different as well. Bear with me while I examine Advocacy in the “rights-based” Court Model in Part I in preparation for discussing advocacy in the “interest-based” Collaborative Model in Part II followed by the “power of neutrality” in Part III. Trust me, this is interesting. In a rights-based model, “rights” are independent standards of fairness or legitimacy that are formally established in law or contract. Usually different rights or entitlements are at stake in a particular case. Here, each party and their attorney is playing to the decision-maker, e.g., the judge, or playing to a prediction of what the decision-maker would decide based on application of the law to the facts of the case.
As I listened to the appalling news out of Ferguson, MO, last week, I was especially struck by two things: First, a veteran police officer, a retired chief of a municipal department, shared an observation that his officers made during unrest in his city, that when they were deployed in riot gear, officers invariably discovered that the situation became riotous. But when they met protestors wearing only their regular uniforms, they were able to talk to them and defuse many situations. Secondly, early last week, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon put State Troopers under the command of Capt. Ronald S. Johnson, who grew up in the area, in charge of the police effort in Ferguson. Capt. Johnson, as pictured on the front page of the August 15th N.Y. Times, wore only his regular Summer uniform. He walked with protestors in the streets; he listened to them explain long-standing grievances. And the temperature in Ferguson cooled perceptibly–before additional tear gas and rubber bullets reignited passions. I am not a cop. But the retired police chief–and Capt. Johnson–and I–all know from long experience that you will find trouble if you go looking for it. Fortunately, my experiences as a divorce lawyer lack both rubber bullets and tear gas, but they are accompanied by strong emotions, usually expressed in the denigration of my client’s spouse. My client recites how dishonest, abusive, or uncaring the spouse is; how neglectful or clueless he or she is. It’s the opposite of the old lyric, “lookin’ for gold in a silver mine.” If those negative emotions bubble over, they’re invariably met with–SURPRISE!–the same feelings on the other side! And the case becomes even more contentious. The bigger waste, overall, is that the couple seems to believe that the family court system cares about this emotion. Apparently they believe that if the fight becomes bitter enough, someone will “win”. These folks could have been the inspiration for Elton John’s lyrics in “Honky Cat”: “It’s like trying to find gold in a silver mine. It’s like trying to drink whiskey from a bottle of wine.” Collaborative Process was conceived as a problem-solving exercise, based on a belief that husbands and wives might put their children’s welfare before their own. When I can get my client to take that leap of faith, s/he is often astounded to discover that, because they’re not spending the time fighting, both of them are able to make decisions that directly benefit the entire family. When my client starts out believing that their spouse also wants to complete the process and care for their children, they discover–SURPRISE!–that the spouses do. And when that happens, they’re more willing to listen to the variety of ways in which that could occur. Time and energy are now spent devising productive ways to reorganize their family. If you’re looking for peace by waging war, don’t expect to find it. If, on the other hand, you start out waging peace . . .
The kids might not be the only ones headed back to school this fall. Divorce forces many parents back into the workforce, and for some, even back to school. Divorce can initiate some dramatic changes in your lifestyle, and it make you re-evaluate yourself and your career. Some former stay at home parents are now looking for an enriching way to increase earning potential by going back for a degree they never finished, for a new degree, or for some it may be their first time in college. Divorce forces many people to take a risk, to do something for their selves, to strive for personal growth and to set goals, which is why many decide going back to school is a good option for them. When evaluating if going back to school is the right option for you consider that your goals are: Are you hoping to begin a new career? Advance in your current career? How long will it take? What will you be able to earn when you are finished? Consider the cost: Ask your attorney about whether continuing your education post-divorce will affect your spousal maintenance. Check with your employer to see if they cover any of the cost. Discuss your financial situation at the college’s Financial Aid office to see if you may qualify for any grants or scholarships, and of course, compare tuition amounts for schools in your area. Typically called, “non-traditional students” divorcees, over 35, and typically women, make up a good percentage for the student population at community, private, and online colleges, which usually offer flexible schedules and work at your own pace credit loads to graduate. It is not easy taking a risk and making a big commitment to go back to school, but if you decide that going back to school post-divorce is for you, rest assured that you are not alone.
How to provide financially for children after divorce has been a much-discussed topic for decades. Courts have traditionally used child support guidelines established by state government to calculate a monthly payment from one parent to the other. The Minnesota guideline child support calculator incorporates a number of variables, including both parents’ incomes, number of children, parenting time percentages, and children’s medical and day care costs, in arriving at a monthly payment amount. While statutory formulas produce a number, they don’t always resolve the issue. Many unanswered questions may remain, such as: “Is summer camp included in my child support payment?” “Do I have to contribute toward dance lessons on top of my child support?” “Our child needs private tutoring … does my ex have to pay half?” “Who pays for hockey equipment and ice time?” Ambiguity often results in conflict. Some couples return to court again and again to try to resolve questions like these. The emotional and financial costs of repeated court appearances add up in a hurry. The Collaborative divorce process takes a different approach toward paying the children’s direct and indirect expenses. Parents compile a list of their kids’ direct expenses (clothing, haircuts, school lunches, daycare, summer camps, extracurricular activities, etc.) and then discuss options for paying these expenses. Some couples decide to fund a joint children’s account to be used solely for enumerated expenses. Others divide the expenses with mom paying some and dad paying some. Others decide to use the guideline calculator, spelling out how any additional expenses will be covered. Indirect expenses (housing and food) are included in each parent’s budget and are usually part of a more general discussion about support. Collaborative support agreements typically include periodic reviews allowing for adjustments as parents’ incomes and the children’s needs change. Plans like these can preemptively avoid repeated unpleasant discussions in the years following divorce. If you are interested in learning more about the Collaborative process, please visit The Collaborative Law Institute of Minnesota’s website.
Peace is possible though we are surrounded by high conflict. In the recent words of former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, “The world is a mess.” Messiness occurs when people are unable or unwilling to resolve differences without wars of words or weapons. This occurs not only globally but also on a personal scale. And for all the extraordinary human costs of violent conflict, the most deeply distressing is its impact on children. The end of a marriage is not unlike the breaking up of a country based on sectarian differences. Is it possible to disconnect without civil war? Yes, but one must be mindful of the path one is choosing, and deliberately opt to not do battle. Though sometimes complicated, peaceful resolutions are possible if the focus remains the safety and wellbeing of children. I do not believe conflict is inevitable, because for every cause of conflict there is an inverse possibility. In our day-to-day lives, we can choose a path of peace. We can elect to follow The Four Agreements as defined by Don Miguel Ruiz in his book by the same name, and use these principles to help us resolve our differences:
- I will be impeccable with my word.
- I will not personalize what the other person says, does, thinks or believes.
- I will make no assumptions.
- I will do my best every day with the energy I have been given.
It seems it’s nearly inevitable that at some point we all have a friend going through a divorce. The support we offer during that trying time can often set the precedence of the friendship going forward. The same holds true for someone battling a disease like cancer; whether you turn your back and quietly whisper or are brave enough to offer support shows not only the value or your friendship, but your true character. So how can you help? First and foremost, be a good listener and offer emotional support. You don’t have to have all the answers, but listening intently and letting your friend know that you are there to listen or be a shoulder to cry on anytime, day or night, is important. Remind them that are worthy of happiness. Constantly reassure them. Reassure them that a divorce is not a reflection of who they are. Reassure them that they are an amazing person, and that you are there for them whatever happens. Be aware of the divorce emotional cycle. Your friend will be feeling so many emotions that will constantly be changing. Reassure them that they have the right to their emotions and that healing is a long process that no one can put a timeline on. Have compassion and allow them their feelings and validate their need to process things in their own way. Remind them that divorce does not define a person. Eating is probably not going to be at the top of their priority list, not to mention stomaching a full meal with a broken heart. Cooking for one is no fun, so providing them with small meals and healthy snacks can be helpful. Also if they have children to feed, providing meals they can quickly throw in the oven and not have to work about shopping and meal prep would be a huge help. Be adventurous – try a new food that you’ve never tasted before. Spice up your grocery list with 3 (healthy) new items to try. Offer your friend a place to stay, help looking for a new house or apartment, moving help, etc. On top of possibly needing help physically packing or moving, ask if they need help getting things sorted out with bills, budgets, and finding a divorce support group. Get out and about. Try new things. Say YES to something new. Activities are important. Take a walk together, try out a new restaurant, summer outdoor concerts, go for a bike ride, try out a new sport, and stick to the ones you love. Every day, learn at least 3 new words of a language you admire. Create a bucket list. Write down your biggest dreams – and take little steps in making them happen. Be a positive part of their life. Offering support doesn’t have to mean spouse bashing, simply listening when they need to talk and planning activities to help them take their mind off things for a bit can be a world of help. Find the joy in the everyday.