Dog, Jack
It turns out that dogs are great teachers about relationships. My dog recently taught me that I cannot get him (or anyone else) to do something simply by being right. Being right will not get you what you want in a relationship, and may even drive a deeper wedge between you and what you want. Our family recently adopted Jack from the Humane Society in St. Paul. Jack is a sweet, somewhat shy, dog who started his journey in Alabama. I think about Jack spending time in a shelter in Alabama and then riding in a kennel for the long drive to Minnesota–multiple kennels, surrounded by unknown dogs, poked and examined by well-meaning vets and volunteers and then coming to a new house with new people. So Jack was living a high stress life for at least the two weeks before he came into our lives. One night during his first week with us, I took him outside to pee before bed. Jack had been outside several times that day, but he hadn’t peed. I needed him to pee so we could sleep through the night. Jack was skittish, and easily distracted. Just as I thought he was going to go, a dog in a neighboring house started barking and Jack moved out of position.  He pulled on the leash and wanted to go back inside. I knew the right thing for Jack. He would feel much more comfortable all night if he just peed. I bet 10 out of 10 people on the street would agree with me. After 12+ hours, peeing is a good idea. I was tired, and I was worried about him. I became impatient. My voice took on an edge as I got more and more frustrated that he would not do what I was asking. I was right, after all. But it didn’t matter to Jack. My frustration, impatience and insistence only made him more stressed. And less likely to pee. What Jack needed was a way to reduce his stress. Staking out the factually correct position and insisting did not help Jack reduce his stress. This is true for anyone in a relationship. Couples going through a divorce sometimes get hung up on being “right,” but that’s not going to lead to an agreement if the other person is stressed out.  Sometimes you have to back off and let the other person relax and reach their own conclusion. We work very hard to minimize stress for everyone in the collaborative divorce process.  It helps people reach durable agreements. Jack never peed that night. The next morning, we were both refreshed, the sun was shining and I sat back and let Jack take his time. He peed, and we were both happy.
A recent article in the New York Times suggests that big-money divorces provide lessons for less-wealthy couples. Regardless of a couple’s income or net worth, several questions are common to most marriage dissolutions, including:
  • How can we create a parenting plan that will benefit our children?
  • How can we divide our assets fairly?
  • How can we maintain control of divorce costs?
The Collaborative divorce process uses a team model to provide the information and support necessary to allow couples to reach mutually satisfactory answers to these questions. As the New York Times article points out, Collaborative divorce “focuses on getting to a quick, fair resolution.” A thoughtful parenting plan consists of more than a schedule of overnights. A Collaborative child specialist can help parents craft a plan that addresses the individual and developmental needs of their children. Discussions often include such issues as the schools the children will attend, future relationships with extended family, introduction of significant others, and future moves by either parent. Sometimes parents can reach agreements regarding possible future events, but often it is sufficient to agree on a process for resolving future differences of opinion. Either way, including such agreements in the parenting plan can provide a framework for the years ahead. Similarly, achieving a fair division of assets can be challenging. A Collaborative financial professional can assist with collection of documentation, valuation of assets, and tax considerations. Once both parties understand the relevant information, they generate and evaluate various settlement options to determine the best arrangement for their family. While keeping the costs of divorce as reasonable as possible is a worthy goal, conflict is expensive. In litigation, each spouse hires their own experts, often resulting in extreme positions, elevated emotions, and a sluggish process. Collaboratively trained neutral professionals, whose fees are shared by the parties, provide more expertise at a lower cost. Their neutrality also reduces the likelihood of impasse due to either spouse’s unrealistic expectations. If you are interested in learning more about the Collaborative process, please visit the Collaborative Law Institute of Minnesota website for more information.
TissuesIn a collaborative divorce process – there are usually tissues on the table. When a client first comes into an attorney’s office to tell their story or learn about divorce, it can be emotional and scary. Some people cry. Some of those tears come from sadness, fear, or worry about the future. Some people feel guilt or are mourning the loss of a relationship. Whatever the emotions are, in collaborative divorce, it is alright to express them. Indeed, expression of emotion can be key to the process – help clients process the transition and be more honest in the negotiations. Sometimes, clients cry quietly and silently in the process. The team may keep the process moving or take time to acknowledge the emotion. Clients can always take a break or ask for a moment alone. Silence may be a useful way to acknowledge the emotion. At other times, emotions may run hot and anger can result in intensified behavior. The team may choose to discuss the emotions or use a coach (mental health professional) to help keep emotions productive in the meetings. Clients may cry during joint meetings or when meeting with other professionals. Some clients cry while a lot others hardly cry. In a recent joint meeting, two clients were sharing each of their desires to spend Christmas morning with the children. The attorneys asked each client to express their personal reasons in the meeting. In front of the attorneys and the other spouse, they each shared their thoughts on this subject. Wife cried during her turn – the emotions were pure and real. After a moment of silence, Husband’s attorney acknowledged her emotion, saying “I know that was hard and I thank you for sharing your thoughts.” Husband expressed empathy as well. When he spoke, he acknowledged her by saying “It’s hard for me to share my thoughts now because I know how important this is to you.” Emotion is real and the collaborative process allows for its expression. Indeed, there will always be tissues on the table.
How do you turn a divorce process into a healing process? By envisioning your highest goals for what you want to accomplish during the divorce and after the divorce has ended.  This is what happens in a Collaborative Divorce process. Unlike the traditional divorce process where the focus is often what happened in the past, the collaborative divorce process focuses on the future.

At the commencement of a collaborative divorce, the divorcing couple identify and share their vision for a healthy divorce and a healthy life after divorce. Here are some of the visions couples have shared with me in my work as a Collaborative Divorce attorney.

Beth and Peter’s Vision Children
  • For our children to see us co-parent with each other in a non-conflictive way.
  • For us to live in close proximity to each other while raising our children.
  • For us to live in stable environments while raising our children.
  • For our children’s lifestyles to be affected as little as possible by our divorce within the resources available to us (e.g., emotionally and educationally; that we continue with the educational plans we have made for our children; that our children live in the same community).
  • For our children to have as much stability and security in their lives as they require.
  • For us to be fully involved with raising our children.
  • For both households to be financially resilient.
  • For us to develop independently in terms of financial security.
  • To have the flexibility in one’s work schedule to be present with the children as their schedules require.
  • For Beth to have the opportunity to explore educational, training, and other career opportunities with the goal of becoming financially independent.
  • To respect the financial decisions made by us and our families, including the decision of Peter’s family to leave him money.
  • For us to be in a co-parenting relationship our children can count on.
  • For us to be respectful of each other into the future.
  • For us to create a new, healthy family relationship with each other.
  • For us to look back on this difficult time in our shared life and be proud of how we handled a time of conflict and communicate it to our children when the time is right.
Erin and Matt’s Vision (no children)
  • That we have confidence in the decisions we make.
  • That we make a transition to a friendly relationship when completed with the collaborative divorce process.
  • That we have a feeling of peace and resolution.
  • That we have a positive financial outcome that meets both of our needs.
  • That we both have financial security.
  • That the emotional distress of the divorce is minimized.
  • That we are able to promote cordial relationships with each other’s extended family and mutual friends.
  • That we keep in mind the possibility that Erin will move out of the State.
  • That the settlement take into consideration Erin’s need to finish school.
  • That Matt is able to remain in the homestead and maintain a reasonable budget.
  • That Erin is able to purchase a modest home and meet her living expenses.
Jeff and Ann’s Vision
  • For our children not to feel divided.
  • For our children to feel comfortable with both of us.
  • For us to convey a sense of harmony to our children.
  • To have financial security for both of us.
  • To get along with each other after the divorce; to have mutual respect for each other; and to have a pleasant relationship.
Creating a vision of the future is the key to crafting settlements that achieve those visions.  And so the healing begins.
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.
As a divorce attorney, I often ask myself   “What is this dispute really about?”  This is also a good question for each person going through a divorce. In an early case I had before I started practicing collaborative divorce,  an ex-wife sued my client after the divorce was final.  Her motion  said that he had wrongfully taken the Tupperware and her maternity clothing and she wanted those items.  We actually had a court hearing on this and her ex-husband had to get on the witness stand and testify.  He testified that  he did not have the Tupperware and he did not have and had no use for her maternity clothes. That brought out a chuckle from those in the courtroom and the judge stifled a grin.  The motion was denied and I felt like we “won.” Looking back, I now realize that the divorce did not resolve some underlying issues which caused the dispute to keep on going.   In a traditional divorce, the legal issues control the outcome in court and the emotional issues determine how long and how costly the dispute is. In a collaborative divorce, both the emotional and legal issues are acknowledged and addressed.  The process we use focuses on the interests the parties have – and in my experience most of those interests are shared by both.  If there are differences, those are discussed.  The basic facts needed  are incomes, values of assets, debt balances –which can easily be verified by documents.   Those assets that are harder to value such as homes, businesses – can be valued by a neutral expert agreed to by both The emotions of anger and perceived wrongs of the past can impede progress in reaching a final agreement.  In a collaborative divorce, a neutral coach who is a mental health professional working with the couple, helps them work through those impediments to  a settlement. If you are going through a divorce, you want to avoid arguing about the Tupperware and get some help to focus on what your real interests are and how you can reach an agreement.