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.

My kids are spirited.  Not possessed, although somedays it seems like they are.  I thought the term “spirited child” referred to a child with ADD or ADHD.  Not true.  It’s not a diagnosis – it’s simply temperament.  Thank goodness for Minnesota’s own Mary Sheedy Kurcinka and her book, “Raising Your Spirited Child.”  As soon as I finished it, I started reading it again. Spirited kids are just “more,” and my two kiddos are high energy, intense, persistent, and slow to adapt.  This slow-to-adapt trait makes transitions a CONSTANT battle.  It’s hard enough getting my two out the door to school every day.  Then I think about kids whose parents are going through a divorce.  Not only are kids of divorce doing the everyday school, activities, home, etc., but they have two homes to toggle between.  I’m sure it’s hard for any kid to go back and forth between two homes.  Most adapt, though.  But if you have a child who doesn’t like transitions, and mix in some frustration and sadness of the divorce, you have the ingredients for a frustrating, heart-breaking battle between parent and child.  What to do? Regardless of whether they are spirited, but especially if they are, listen to your children.  Understand what your children are going through.  It’s never too late to get a child specialist involved in the process, even post-decree. Talk with your children them, instead of at them.  They didn’t ask to be in this position and they have NO control over the divorce.  Help them feel like they have some control over their world.  Don’t just assume they are doing well because they are getting straight A’s, or they’ll be OK when the divorce is final.  Maybe they will be OK.  After all, kids are resilient.  But they’re your kids.  And I think it’s our duty as parents to do as much for our kids emotionally as we can.  They deserve it.
An amicable separation and divorce can sometimes become strained when new relationships start.  New significant others often cause new emotional reactions that can subsequently impact parenting. In order to preemptively address the problems that can arise when new relationships start, in collaborative divorce, we often come up with parameters to address significant others. Here are some potential options to consider when thinking about agreements on significant others.  Any or all may be included in a parenting plan.
  • One option is to not allow the children to be introduced to any significant others without agreement of the other parent.
  • Sometimes parents like to have a period of time (such as six months or one year) after the divorce is final when no significant other shall be introduced to the children.
  • An introduction to a significant other may only occur when a neutral parenting expert (such as a child specialist in the collaborative divorce process) recommends that it is appropriate to do so.
  • Parents often keep some aspirational language in the decree such as: “Both parents understand that it is in the best interest of the children to support the children’s relationship with any long-term significant other of the other parent and shall make all reasonable efforts to do so.”
There are a number of ways to address significant others in the parenting plan. Indeed, some work on the front end, can help prevent significant stress and strain later.  Talk to a collaborative professional to learn more.
108746711-pointing-to-oneself-gettyimagesCo-parenting can be challenging even in the most amicable divorces, but there are some personalities disorders that make co-parenting downright difficult. Among these include, but are not limited to: bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, and narcissistic personality disorder. We are going to focus on narcissists in this post. Narcissists have a magnified sense of self-importance and lack they empathy for others. Narcissists insist on getting their way regardless of how it may affect others, even their own children. They may make promises to the children in order to gain compliance from the child, then refuse to honor the promises. They can be arrogant, self-centered, manipulative, demanding, and vain. As co-parents, these individuals often feel superior to their former spouse. It is challenging to reason with a narcissist, or attempt to try to get them to see the situation from someone else’s point of view, which makes co-parenting together a great feat. Sound familiar? Most importantly you must know that your ex’s personality disorder does not need to define your divorce. One of the best things that you can do in this situation is file a parenting plan with the courts. A parenting plan will outline anything from daily routines to holiday schedules. When dealing with a narcissist the more information you have laid out in writing, the more black and white it becomes. A parenting plan with help to maintain firm boundaries with your ex. When co-parenting with a narcissist you may need to keep your expectations low. You cannot expect the narcissist to tackle parenting with the same parental instincts that you have. What seems like second nature to you, may never cross a narcissist’s radar. Because a narcissist places no value on their children’s feelings, there will likely be emotional messes to clean up. Get your children (and you) into therapy and make it a regular and “normal”  part of their lives. Take comfort in knowing that you are not alone. There are support groups out there, both online and in person, that are aimed specifically towards coping with a narcissistic ex. Divorce is never easy on children. Coping with a narcissistic parent makes a stressful situation even more difficult, but not impossible. Educate yourself on co-parenting through these challenging times, and also commit to self-care to provide some reprieve.
collaborative divorce optionsThe longer I work as a neutral child specialist, the more important I realize it is to help divorcing parents have meaningful conversations about the possibility that one or both of them will enter into new significant relationships while their children are growing up.  New significant relationships usually generate a range of emotions and reactions in all family members, some of which are unanticipated.  It’s not uncommon for families to re-engage with me when a parent remarries or re-partners to help ensure that children’s best interests are kept at the center of a new family dynamic. New relationships introduce another element of change and uncertainty into co-parenting.  Parenting arrangements for the holidays that were working well may suddenly be called into question.  Boundaries may need new clarification, e.g. who is welcome to attend parent-teacher conferences or take children to their swim meets.  Advance planning and discussions that normalize potential co-parenting road bumps can help parents stay centered on what’s best for their children. Here are five basic considerations regarding new significant relationships:
  1. Give yourself sufficient time to heal.  Divorce is a major life crisis.  Entering into a new relationship too quickly increases the likelihood that you will not have had time to master the emotional and relational lessons to be learned from your marriage so that you can be truly ready for a new significant attachment.
  2. Give your children sufficient time to heal.  Children are deeply affected by a divorce.  Many children tell me the news felt like a bad dream, and what helps them adjust is getting used to the “new normal” over time.  Adding additional changes too quickly can negatively impact children’s energy, focus, emotional stability and resilience.
  3. Inform your co-parent before introducing a new significant other to your children.  This is not only a courtesy between parents, but it also helps keeps children out of the middle when they know the new relationship is not a secret.
  4. If you are co-parenting, any new partner or spouse will need to understand and honor the fact that you have a preexisting lifelong co-parenting relationship.  It can be a big red flag if a new person seems threatened by or not accepting of your co-parenting relationship.
  5. Children may experience insecurity, jealousy or other worries regarding new adults and children who are increasingly present during their time with a parent.  This can be especially challenging if step-children get to spend more actual time with this parent than do his or her own children.  Parents need to stay attuned to their children’s cues about needing attention, and plan dates and special time with them.
When co-parents are prepared to communicate effectively and work cooperatively on behalf of their children, the introduction of new mature significant others to children who are emotionally ready for this change can be a positive experience for all family members.
181216069In a recent first meeting with new clients, I was obtaining family history to help ground me in both parents’ perspectives on issues related to their divorce. A comment by the dad struck a chord for me. He said, “I believe the way I can become the best parent to my child is by getting a divorce.” At first glance this comment seems counter-intuitive. Most children would prefer their parents remain married or partnered and under one roof. Divorce is usually a life crisis for children and their parents. Divorce is necessarily about grief and loss. How does it follow that a divorce can result in better parenting? The answer is that many parents whose marriages don’t work are able to enter into a co-parenting relationship that does work. In these families, children remain at the center of their parents’ concern and out of the middle of their parents’ conflicts. Especially if the decision to get unmarried is mutual, and a reservoir of trust and good will about parenting has been preserved, it can relieve a great deal of stress in the home to decide (though often with great sadness) to let go of the marriage while embracing a new lifelong role as co-parents. Children can continue to feel safe and loved in the context of a healthy co-parenting relationship. Effective co-parents are mindful and committed to being present for and attuned to the needs of their children, and this is the foundation of their children’s resilience and hope. Collaborative Team Practice offers specialized mental health resources to support and reinforce healthy and effective co-parenting during and after a divorce. Neutral child specialists and neutral coaches help parents create Parenting Plans and Relationship Plans as detailed and unique guides for positive co-parenting. It is indeed possible to divorce with the goal of becoming the best parent one can be.
466032689Divorcing parents often wonder how vacations are treated in a parenting plan. There are often three types of vacation options addressed in divorce.
  1. Vacation during parenting time. Often parents are each allowed to take unlimited vacations during their scheduled parenting time. There may be additional requirements to notify the off-duty parent of any travel or certain vacations that are not agreed to generally. But because these vacation do not impact parenting time, they are usually the simplest to address.
  2. Vacation with the children that includes off-duty parenting time. Some parents agree to some amount of time for vacations that are longer than parenting time blocks. One or two weeks a year often fits for families. These vacations may include travel out-of-state or be contiguous time in town. Usually both parents have the same amount of time and there is often a notice requirement – that the parent wanting a vacation informs the other parent of the planned vacation.  This time often supersedes regularly scheduled parenting time and is not made up at a later date.
  3. Vacation without the children that includes no-duty parenting time. Sometimes parents agree to include vacation time without the children in a parenting plan. This allows a parent to have time away while the other parent takes on more parenting time. This vacation time is also usually equally provided to both parents and includes a notice requirement.
In all of these options, it is often a good idea to not inform the children of a proposed vacation until it has been agreed-upon by both parents. Obviously, these options address only the parenting time elements of vacation and not the financial significance of vacations. Vacations and travel may be included in budgets and support options or other financial agreements can be reached or discussed in the divorce process.
174496060It is not uncommon for parents to disagree on school choice. Sometimes parents have differing opinions on the curriculum of a school or certain teachers or even location or class schedule. When children are at natural school moves (such as entering junior high or high school), additional changes need to be made. When parents are divorced, these decisions can often be even more difficult. In addition to deciding what’s best for the children, emotions and challenging communication can make the decisions even harder. Sometimes it is good to look at the practical and logical considerations to help make these joint decisions. Here are some specific considerations in a school decision:
  • If it is not a natural school change point, how well do the children deal with change? Do they make friends easily? Do they know anyone at the potential new school? Are there specific elements of the new school that would be particularly enjoyable for the child (such as an orchestra or specific extra curricular activity)?
  • How well does the new school deal with change? Do they have programs in place to integrate transfer students into school? Is there anyone who has transferred into the school recently that you or the children could talk to in order to prepare? Could the school assign your children mentors or buddies to help them feel more comfortable if they transfer?
  • How would a school change impact parenting time? Will both parents still have meaningful time with the children?
  • Should the children have some say in this decision? Junior high and high school students may want to visit potential schools and provide some input on the change.
Ideally, divorced parents with joint custody can work together and make a school choice together. If it becomes difficult or starts to cause any stress or strain on the children, consider seeking third party support. A neutral child specialist or collaborative process could help you work together on a decision.
186858906How 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.

179557103One of the most valuable outcomes of Collaborative Team Practice for many families is how respectfully the process helps prepare parents for effective co-parenting.  Lee Eddison, a very experienced neutral coach in Collaborative Team Practice, aptly describes this as a transition from We (a married couple) to a different kind of We (co-parents).

In Collaborative Team Practice, the expertise to make this transition is available from two mental health professionals on the team, the neutral child specialist and the neutral coach.  The neutral child specialist offers a child-inclusive process to assist parents in the creation of a developmentally responsive Parenting Plan.  The Parenting Plan lays an important foundation for effective-co-parenting with detailed agreements about decision making; communication; parenting expectations, routines and guidelines; and parenting time.  This foundation is considerably strengthened when parents also create a Relationship Plan with their neutral coach.

The Relationship Plan is a set of clear and specific agreements about how parents can communicate effectively and resolve potential or actual conflicts in a productive manner once they have completed their divorce or separation and are on their own.  The Relationship Plan is not a list of cookie cutter recommendations or generic advice, but is specifically tailored to the unique needs and concerns of each family.  

Included in the Relationship Plan are agreements about necessary boundaries to define safe emotional, physical and communication space for co-parenting.The neutral coach helps parents be specific about what words and behaviors from a co-parent would feel respectful and supportive, what could easily trigger negative emotions, and what to do if negative emotions are triggered.  The Relationship Plan helps parents anticipate and prepare for a number of sensitive and potentially complicated interpersonal situations that frequently arise after a divorce or break up.Creating a Relationship Plan also provides an opportunity for parents to articulate and build on their own and their co-parent’s strengths.

In my experience as a neutral child specialist,  parents who invest the time and resources to create a Relationship Plan with their neutral coach have prepared themselves as fully as possible for their lifelong relationship as co-parents.  On behalf of their children, what could possibly be more valuable than that?