It may be tempting to save money in a divorce by drafting a decree with your spouse, or by completing a form decree. This is especially true if it appears that you and your spouse are in accord on all issues. But be warned: unintended consequences can arise months or years after your decree has been filed and entered by the Court. Once your decree has been filed by the Court and entered by Court Administration, your decree becomes the legal guide for everything related to your divorce: custody and parenting time, support, property and debt division. On the surface, these issues can seem simple and many couples attempt drafting their own dissolution paperwork without counsel in an effort to save on the investment of lawyers and other professionals. While it is true that parties are often in the best position to make decisions about what their families need, attorneys are uniquely trained (and perhaps some are even naturally suited) to imagining something their clients may not be inclined to consider: the worst-case scenario. The worst-case scenario is and should be an ever-present consideration for attorneys as they counsel their clients regarding important decisions that will have long-term impacts on parenting and financial issues. An attorney may be a glass-is-half-full type of person, but he or she has been trained to imagine what could go wrong five years out from a divorce or custody determination. The worst-case scenario may not be an enjoyable rumination, but it is critically important in drafting strong contracts. Take Couple A, for example. Couple A was married for 12 years. They have an eight-year-old child and they own a home, which they purchased together during the marriage. Couple A decide to divorce in November and to sell the home in the spring when the housing market is stronger. They agree to share the closing costs and to equally divide the sale proceeds. They also decide that they will have equal parenting time, but they do not create a specific parenting time schedule. Couple A feels pretty good about the progress they are making, and they should feel great – many couples are not able to have fruitful conversations about parenting and property issues in the context of a separation. Couple A signs and files their divorce decree, which awards the home to Wife, pending the sale of the house. Husband has purchased a townhome a few miles away. Couple A is glad to have the divorce behind them so they can focus on their child and on moving forward with life. What could go wrong? Let’s check back in with Couple A one year after their decree is entered. It is late fall and the marital home is still unsold. At the time the divorce was finalized, the realtor recommended repairs that required time and money and the parties were not able to agree on a listing price. Some offers were made, but the parties felt that the property should sell for more. Wife has been paying the mortgage for the past year, and the parties have now just received a solid offer. Wife wants to be credited for reducing the mortgage principal during the year she made mortgage payments and is asking for additional sale proceeds. Husband does not agree – he has done some of the repair work on the home and has paid for lawn maintenance. The decree is silent on principal reduction, and he believes the net equity should be divided equally, as worded in the decree. In addition, Wife has put in an offer on a home twenty miles away from Husband’s new home. Wife wants the now 9-year-old to attend school near her new home, in a different school district. Even though the parties agreed on equal parenting time, Husband has been picking up overtime at work to help offset some of his expenses, so Wife has had significantly more overnight parenting time over the course of the last year. Wife has hired a lawyer and is threatening to take Husband to court to address school choice, parenting time, and the division of equity from the sale of the marital home. If Couple A had attorneys, even to simply review their draft decree, they could have included some provisions to address these foreseeable events. As a family law attorney, I have encountered many “Couple As,” who, with the best intentions, endeavored to divorce without counsel because they believed it would save them time and money. However, in many instances, these couples overlook important details and pitfalls that a family law attorney will mitigate by including provisions that anticipate change and communication breakdowns. In the end, these couples have unnecessarily spent significant amounts of money to resolve issues that could have been avoided by addressing them properly at the time of divorce. If Couple A had engaged in the Collaborative Divorce process and retained collaborative attorneys committed to working only out of court, they would have had conversations focused on problem solving the issues that they later encountered up front. While many divorcing couples can and should make efforts to reach agreements on their own, attorneys offer unique perspective and experience when counseling clients on important agreements. If you are considering a divorce or have questions about whether the Collaborative Divorce process is right for you (there are many wonderful blog posts on the CLI site explaining why it probably is), contact CLI or browse through the online listing of collaborative attorneys (Find a professional) – most of us offer free initial consultations and love the collaborative work we do. About the Author: Rebecca Randen is a family law practitioner and partner at the firm Randen, Chakirov & Grotkin LLC. She practices collaborative and traditional family law in the metro and greater Minnesota. She is a lifelong Beatles fan. www.rcglawoffice.com
Since its inception in Minnesota 30 years ago, the Collaborative Divorce process has helped families in all 50 states and more than 25 countries find a healthier way to end their marriage without going to court. However, this respectful alternative to contested divorce has largely remained unavailable to families in greater Minnesota. The recent advent of virtual practice and Zoom meetings has changed this landscape and opened up new possibilities for the statewide availability of Collaborative Divorce. The Collaborative Divorce process was created in 1990. Minnesota attorney Stu Webb, discouraged by the emotional and financial side effects of adversarial divorce, piloted a new approach in which attorneys would be involved for settlement purposes only. Because Collaborative divorce attorneys were disqualified from going to court, these attorneys needed to become effective and creative negotiators and problem solvers. The result was a process in which divorcing couples could design customized outcomes for their families and not go to court. As the Collaborative Divorce concept grew throughout North America and the world, it evolved into a team process. By using specially trained neutral experts in child development, family systems and divorce-related finance in addition to their Collaborative attorneys, clients are able to bring this added expertise to their parenting and financial resolutions, and likely reduce the financial cost of their divorce. The process is tailored to the needs of the family using professionals based on the skills and expertise they need. It has been an unfortunate reality for accessibility that specially trained Collaborative professionals are typically concentrated in metro areas, including in Minnesota. But with the social distancing required by the pandemic, almost all divorce professionals are working with and representing clients online, typically through Zoom meetings. This means that a couple’s distance from Collaboratively trained professionals is no longer an obstacle. Individuals in greater Minnesota, can now have access to a full Collaborative team without leaving their homes. To learn if a Collaborative Divorce is right for you and your family, please visit the website of the Collaborative Law Institute of Minnesota at www.collaborativelaw.org. There you will find detailed information about the Collaborative process, as well as names and bios of Collaborative professionals who practice this family-friendly, problem-solving, and future-focused process. Collaboratively trained professionals will be happy to offer you free informational meetings via teleconferencing to help you make the decision about whether this process, and a particular attorney or neutral professional, feels right for your needs. Collaborative Practice Highlights:
- The entire process is legally and ethically done outside of court
- The result of the process is customized to the particular needs of a divorcing couple and/or family
- Clients can build a team of Collaboratively trained attorneys, neutral financial experts, mediators and mental health professionals (coaches and child/family specialists) who focus on problem solving and dispute resolution
- Collaborative professionals can offer specialized ala carte services in specific areas of particular need for clients, e.g., financial plans, parenting plans, conflict resolution, preparation and review of legal documents, and more.
- Collaborative Law Institute of Minnesota (CLI) website: collaborativelaw.org
- Find a Professional: https://www.collaborativelaw.org/find-a-professional/
- CLI Blog: collaborativedivorceoptions.com
- CLI Mailing address: 4707 Highway 61 N, #217 | White Bear Lake, MN 55110
There is a “new” way of going through divorce that puts clients in charge. It’s called “Unbundled Legal Service” and it means that the clients get to have legal advice without having the lawyers take over the full case. This allows clients to get legal advice, and whatever else they truly want, without having to pay lawyers to do things they could do themselves. The word “unbundled” may seem like a strange phrase if you did not realize there was a bundle in the first place. Most clients do not realize that, when they retain a divorce lawyer in the traditional model, the lawyer is authorized (sometimes even required) to engage in the full range of services, from information gathering, to responding to all relevant communications, to reviewing all documents related to the case. Unbundling lets the client choose which things the lawyer will do for them; and which things they will do for themselves. This provides an opportunity to have more control over cost and, sometimes, acrimony. Lawyers charge high hourly rates. When they are providing important legal advice or analyzing complex issues, these hourly rates can be a very wise investment. The decisions you make during your divorce can impact your finances by tens of thousands of dollars and, helping you make important decisions regarding your children may be priceless. On the other hand, paying your lawyer to wait at the courthouse, or drive downtown, or gather your bank records, does not make economic sense. In addition to helping clients save some of their resources for themselves, unbundling can free up funds for clients to spend on other important resources, such as a child specialist to help them co-parent their children, a financial expert to help them make good financial decisions, a coach to help them with communication, or a therapist to help them adjust to the emotional impact of the divorce. While unbundling of legal services is being heralded as a brave new trend, it is, in many ways, a throwback to an old idea; the attorney as “legal counsel” – a concept that was much more common in earlier days. It is only recently, in the more adversarial climate of the past century, that the notion of lawyer as “hired gun” has become widespread. Frustration with both the acrimony and expense of the adversarial approach have caused many divorcing people to forego getting legal advice altogether. Unbundling, or the renewal of attorneys as legal counsel, is allowing people to have the best of both worlds; sound advice combined with control over cost and acrimony. Unbundled divorce has many different variations. One popular form of unbundled divorce is called Collaborative Divorce, where clients choose to have the lawyers focus solely on settlement. Because 97% of all cases settle, hiring lawyers to focus only on settlement helps clients make sure that their legal fees are spent on things that matter to their future. To learn more about Collaborative Divorce go to www.collaborativelaw.org and www.ousky.com.
Vortex: 1) a whirling mass of water or air that sucks everything near it towards its center; or 2) a place or situation regarded as drawing into its center all that it surrounds, and hence, being inescapable or destructible Sound familiar? In Minnesota, it’s tornado season, so many of us in the Midwest think of a tornado when we think of a vortex. Regardless of where you live, if you are going through a divorce, this definition might sound like something you experience rather than something you see, and so, the term Divortex seems appropriate. Unfortunately, too many people have the vortex experience when they divorce. It is all too true: the whirling mass of chaos, negativity, and craziness suck everything into its center. The tornado analogy continues with “destroying everything in its path…leaving nothing but…rubble.” Not a pretty picture. You don’t have to be part of this, however. Divorce is devastating. No one plans to get divorced. Marriages end for various reasons. There is undoubtedly anger and sadness. The clouds roll in, the thunder begins, and it rains. For a long time. But, the divorce process shouldn’t make your relationship worse. Unfortunately, the legal process often turns the rainstorm into not only a flash flood, but a tornado. The legal process contributes to the mess, and thus, the divortex forms, sucking everything into its center: your time, money, emotions, plans, life, EVERYTHING. You have absolutely no control over what it does or where it goes. You are helpless and at its mercy. All you can do is go to the lowest level (which happens inadvertently in litigation) in your home. Stay away from windows. And if you are a person of faith…pray. If you aren’t a person of faith, well, it’s never too late to start. With all due respect to the judges who hear and decide family cases, especially the difficult ones, court IS a whirlwind. You just never know what will happen. Fortunately, you can choose a process where, believe it or not, there is at least a faint glimmer of a rainbow at the end. (Probably not a pot of gold, but a rainbow, nonetheless.) Selecting Collaboration is the first step. You and your spouse decide what the outcome will look like (not a judge). You and your spouse have a voice and participate in the meetings and the decision making. Using a team of trained professionals, you will create your own rainbow. If you want all the colors of the spectrum, perfect! If, however, you’d rather have the cooler colors of green, blue, and indigo, you got it! No one is judging. Really. Sound too good to be true? Nope. (And no worries, I’m not going to bring unicorns into this story.) Next time, I will discuss HOW Collaboration can help you avoid the Divortex. Stay tuned.
As many know, because Minnesota is a no fault divorce state, one spouse not being ready does not need to stop the process from moving forward. The ready spouse can file for divorce and the process moves on in court with little control of the reluctant spouse. A potential client recently came in for a consult and, as often is the case, her husband was struggling to move forward in the process. They were at very different points on the divorce readiness scale – she was ready, he was not. This is quite typical. The other spouse is sometimes called “reluctant” or “in denial.” When one spouse is looking for a non-adversarial, out-of-court alternative (like mediation or collaborative divorce), there is more of a need to bring that other spouse along. The reluctant spouse really can delay the process and interfere with the non-reluctant spouse’s desire to divorce. This potential client said something very interesting to me. She said, “I know I am committed to collaborative divorce, but I am learning that this does not have to be a collaborative decision.” This realization was profound. She realized that she could control the process (with her husband’s agreement), even if her husband never agrees with the decision to divorce. It is common during the divorce process to have spouses be at different comfort levels with the decision to divorce. These levels of readiness can change throughout the process and even vary greatly from one meeting to another. The challenge often lies with helping the reluctant spouse commit to a collaborative process, while acknowledging his or her disagreement with the process. A good collaborative attorney can strategize ways to bring the reluctant spouse into the process and help move things forward. Ways to teach him or her about the divorce options and lay out the pros and cons of different processes for divorce. To learn more, contact Kimberly Miller.
While researching for this post, I came across a number of divorce-related blogs. The blog medium provides an efficient and concise opportunity to share information and educate the public. This blog focuses on the collaborative process — where clients commit to an out-of-court, non–adversarial process. Here are some other blogs that may provide additional information as you navigate the divorce process:
- Jeff Landers writes in Forbes Magazine about complex financial issues that women face in divorce. He is a Certified Divorce Financial Planner who has extensive experience with high asset divorces. His blog is informative and financially savvy.
- Divorced Girl Smiling is a personal blog written by a woman during – and now after her divorce. It is a personal account of her experience, as well as a gathering of resources for others who may be going through the same thing. The archived blogs provide a great path through the litigation process, and provides some insight into why a non-adversarial approach may be better.
As a collaborative attorney, I am often asked “what would a court do?” Although parties in a collaborative divorce are not asking the court to make decisions in their case, what the law is and how a court may view an issue is important. It is part of the information that a client needs to understand to truly make a decision in their own best interest. I recently attended an education series with local judges to gain an understanding of the current state of the law. In the second part of this 2 part series, I outline some of the factors a court may consider in making litigated decisions. On property division and cash flow, here are some of the considerations:
- When dividing assets and liabilities, the courts often begin with an accounting and confirmation of all real estate, accounts, retirement assets, investments, stock options, inheritances, gifts, debts, personal property, vehicles, and all other possessions.
- The courts have to differentiate between marital property that was created or acquired during the marriage and non-marital property that should stay with one party. Non- marital property may include assets from before marriage, gifts or inheritances, and student loans.
- Non-marital property stays with the receiving party. Marital property is divided equitably. This is often interpreted as equally, although there are some exceptions if the outcome is deemed unfair.
- Division of property is a separate question from cash flow (child support and spousal maintenance).
- Child support in court is often calculated with the guidelines based on percentage of overnights with each parent and incomes. Then medical expenses and extra curricular activities are shared by percentage of income.
- Spousal maintenance or alimony is a discretionary area of the law. It is based on the needs of the recipient and the ability of the other spouse to provide support.
- Court requires an analysis of budgets and income or potential income of both parties. It can be difficult to address income if a party has not or is not working.
- Some of the factors for determining support include: length of the marriage, education and age of the spouses with regard to work ability, work history, parenting needs of children, and reasonableness of expenses.
- Because spousal maintenance is one of the most discretionary areas of family law, it is difficult to find consistent outcomes in the court as every case is decided based on the individual facts (and judge).
In the Twin Cities, many family law attorneys offer a free consultation to learn about your options. This is a time to meet your potential new attorney and ask your questions. The consultation can serve three main purposes. First, you can learn about your divorce options. There are four general processes for divorce:
- pro se/unrepresented where you go through the process without legal guidance;
- mediation where a neutral third party helps you come up with the agreements;
- collaborative divorce where both parties commit to a respectful out of court process with lawyers and other professionals guiding the process; and
- litigation, the court-based traditional process. A good consultation should educate you on all of these options.
Most couples have rather specific roles in their marriage. After all, a marriage/family is like a team and everyone needs to do their part for the household to run smoothly. It’s not uncommon for Dad to fill a more traditional role as breadwinner, snow remover, and yard maintainer, and for Mom (even if she works outside the home as the secondary or even primary breadwinner) to fill the traditional role as cook, grocery shopper, and child nurturer. Sometimes roles overlap and sometimes a complete role reversal occurs. When a couple divorces, however, the roles the pair had as Husband/Dad and Wife/Mom often become magnified, and each spouse feels like the other is tromping on his or her territory. Not only that, but often neither partner feels appreciated for the work they did do in the family. Unfortunately, not feeling appreciated often manifests itself as a position in the divorce. For example: Mom feels unappreciated for all the nights she stayed up with sick kids and feels like she should have sole physical custody; Dad feels unappreciated for all the nights he put in working long hours and feels he should get all the retirement. The point is, both parents worked hard in different ways to make the family run as smoothly as possible. With an impending divorce, each spouse will have to give up some of the control of their original role, and take on additional tasks in a new role. It’s not so bad, though. Shoveling snow burns calories, and who doesn’t want that? As for cleaning baby bottles – who knew swirling bubbles around can be a great stress reliever?
Many collaborative law attorneys offer a free consult – 30-60 minutes to meet your potential new attorney and get some questions answered. The consult serves two main purposes: learn about your options and get to know your potential attorney. Until you have hired an attorney, you do not have confidentiality or a legal relationship with the attorney. The consulting attorney cannot give you legal advice or answer legal questions with certainty during this first meeting. The consulting attorney can talk to you about the processes available to you – litigation, collaborative law, or mediation. The consulting attorney can tell you the main legal issues that need to be decided during a case – such as child custody, parenting time, spousal maintenance, or property division. Because the consulting attorney does not have a client relationship, you and your spouse could meet with the attorney together. This is often a good way for you both to hear information together about the process. When you receive the same message, you often feel less adversarial and more like you are both seeking a guide for the process. Indeed, one of the most important aspects of a consult, is the opportunity for you to meet a potential attorney and see if you will be comfortable working with them. Your attorney is your guide. You may cry or express anger in front of this person – you need to feel comfortable doing so. In addition to legal adeptness and zealous advocacy, you also must be comfortable and trust your attorney. This is perhaps the most important element of the relationship.