The Right Divorce Team Makes All the Difference
What Is Collaborative Divorce?
Collaborative divorce (also known as the “collaborative law” process) is a cooperative, interest-based approach to resolving family law cases. Collaborative law proceedings in North Carolina family law cases are recognized and authorized by Article 4 of Chapter 50 of the North Carolina General Statutes. The process has existed and been used nationwide with great success since the mid-1980s.
In a collaborative law case, you and your spouse are supported by a team of divorce professionals. The team typically includes a collaborative divorce attorney for each spouse, a neutral financial expert, and a divorce coach. Information is exchanged and decisions are made in meetings you attend with members of your team.
Collaborative Divorce Attorney
Your collaborative divorce attorney will help you negotiate the legal aspects of a settlement. He or she may not represent you in a lawsuit involving support, custody, or the division of property.
Once agreements are reached, the attorneys work together in drafting a final, binding contract called a separation agreement and property settlement. The attorneys are also available to assist you in obtaining your divorce — in most cases without you ever having to go to court.
Neutral Financial Expert
The neutral financial expert will help you gather, organize, and summarize relevant information related to your income, assets, and liabilities. He or she can help you develop monthly budgets for living in separate homes and sharing parenting expenses. He or she can assist with valuing retirement assets, such as 401(k) plans and pensions. The expert also can explain the tax consequences of the proposed division of assets and help you formulate proposals regarding spousal and child support.
The divorce coach’s role is to facilitate respectful communication between you and your spouse. Separation can be very stressful emotionally. Uncontrolled emotions and recriminations can be an impediment to a good settlement. The coach will make sure that each of you hears the other and that you move past hurt and blame.
Why is Collaborative Divorce a Better Option for You?
Using non-collaborative attorneys to negotiate a separation agreement is often unproductive because the settlement process has no rules and is open-ended. The process begins when one spouse asks his or her attorney to draft a settlement proposal. The attorney first needs to obtain financial information from his or her client and any missing information from the other spouse or her or his attorney. The attorney then will recommend and draft the proposal that best benefits his or her client, without considering the other spouse’s needs and interests. The spouse receiving the proposal then will respond with a counterproposal that favors her or him. If the spouses cannot then reach agreements after going back and forth, their attorneys will typically either (1) recommend mediation, or (2) file a lawsuit and ask a judge to resolve the dispute. And until the lawsuit is filed, there are no deadlines.
In such negotiations, you and your spouse will probably stop talking directly to each other. Messages and proposals will be conveyed by your attorneys. Your attorneys will interpret the messages based on their own biases, experiences, and preconceptions of the other spouse and his or her attorney. Your attorney’s advice to you will be based upon what she or he thinks will happen if a judge reviews your case. What starts out as cooperative can quickly turn adversarial. And all the while, you’ll be spending a small fortune.
Collaborative divorce is different. You maintain control over the process. Information is exchanged at the outset. Each participant is responsible for making sure every other participant can make informed decisions. Before any proposals are exchanged, you and your lawyers will discuss each side’s goals. The attorneys will speak with both of you throughout the process — always with respect and consideration. Brainstorming and discussion will occur before any proposal is accepted. And success is not measured against how you would fare in court. Rather, a successful outcome is one where you and your spouse are both satisfied that you have made a fair deal and will be financially healthy in your new lives.
Key Features of the Collaborative Approach
Here are some of the features that make collaborative divorce unique:
- Limited Representation by Attorneys
Each participant in the collaborative process commits to resolving the issues through settlement negotiations only, without threatening or resorting to court action. The collaborative attorneys represent the clients for this limited purpose only. If the process breaks down, the attorneys are disqualified from further representation.
- Full, Honest, and Open Disclosure
The parties commit to full, honest, and open disclosure of all relevant facts and information. The team works together to determine the documents and other information needed so that information is exchanged promptly and efficiently.
- Neutral Joint Experts
In addition to the team members, the parties may engage other neutral experts. For example, the parties may jointly hire a qualified appraiser to perform a business or pension valuation or to value real or personal property. A CPA can assist in analyzing the tax implications to each party of any potential settlement. In cases involving custody and visitation, a child psychologist can assist the parties in devising a realistic and practical parenting plan.
- Joint Settlement Conferences
Members of the collaborative team participate in joint settlement conferences. Joint conferences promote constructive communication. They are a time-efficient and cost-effective tool for moving the case toward settlement. Participants commit to treating each other with respect, employing active listening skills, and constructing an agreement that adequately addresses each party’s concerns.
- End Result Is an Agreement
The attorneys draft a legally-binding separation agreement and property settlement based on agreements reached during the collaborative process.
The collaborative process is private. So is the agreement reached between the parties.
The collaborative process is faster and, as a result, far less expensive than litigation.
Choosing the Right Collaborative Divorce Attorney
Choosing a collaborative divorce attorney you feel comfortable with is important. That person should possess a sound knowledge of North Carolina family law. He or she should also be an excellent listener and an effective communicator. In addition, he or she should be creative, because solutions are not limited to what a court might order.
Sean Vitrano has practiced collaborative family law since 2010. He is a founding member of Triangle Collaborative Divorce Professionals, the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals, and the North Carolina Bar Association’s Dispute Resolution Section Council. He limits his practice to mediation and using the collaborative law process to help spouses negotiate fair financial settlements and parenting plans that prioritize the needs of their children.