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Collaborative Divorce Come to Pennsylvania

by Elizabeth L. Bennett

Winter 1999, Vol. 62, No. 4

Collaborative Divorce, a new form of marital dispute resolution, has come to Pennsylvania. The collaborative divorce process combines the benefits of the mediation process with some of the protections and security of the traditional legal model. It is an integrated, cross-disciplinary, team approach designed to affect positive change in the family system as it is restructured from a single intact family into two, still inter-dependent, family systems. The process of being served by different professionals, all of whom are released to speak to each other, can loosen the tyranny of polarized positions and facilitate focusing attention on the needs of their children.

The concept was developed in California, the original home of divorce mediation and other family court-related innovations. The developers of collaborative divorce gave a two-day seminar and training on the process in King of Prussia in September of this year. Interest in the process was demonstrated by the attendance of lawyers and therapists from five states.

The essence of collaborative divorce is expressed in the contractual commitment of the parties, their lawyers and the other professionals involved not to litigate and to provide full disclosure of assets. If either party initiates litigation, both attorneys must resign and the collaborative divorce contract is broken. The team of professionals includes attorneys for each side, same-sex mental health counselors or coaches for each party, a mutually selected neutral financial advisor and a child specialist. The team appoints a leader and can use others trained in the team process as consultants to perfect their performance. The professionals fully explain the process and obtain releases and authorizations, from their clients, sufficient to satisfy their respective ethical obligations.

The mental health coaches act as "hand holders" and help the parties distinguish emotional from practical issues. They add a different perspective than that normally developed by attorneys. Each same-gender professional would help the process by being a spokesperson for the client’s concerns and interpreting the client’s reactions for the team. Same-sex mental health counselors are utilized to help keep the parties from slipping into a gender war mentality during divorce. They also teach communications skills required in the post-divorce environment.

The neutral financial advisor structures the information that the parties have disclosed and acts as a fact checker and safety net to guarantee that full disclosure and adequate evaluation of assets actually occurs. For difficult-to-value assets, the parties hire mutually acceptable appraisers.

The child specialist is available to work with the child, helping the child to cope and giving the child a voice. The specialist also can teach parenting skills and give practical advice concerning development of shared custody or visitation schedules. If necessary, the child specialist also can perform testing, mediate the parties’differences and make referrals to other specialists.

It is estimated by those who have had extensive experience with collaborative divorce in California that the cost of the team intervention, exclusive of attorney's fees, typically runs $2,500. This amount is significantly less than a complete child custody evaluation and is minimal compared to the cost of a divorce that runs out of control because of hurt feelings, misunderstandings or lack of cooperation.

Why may collaborative divorce be the best system developed yet? Neither mediation nor the traditional adversarial model provide emotional support and a neutral child specialist. Though mediation may assist parties in escaping the court process, it frequently becomes a theater for the perpetuation of the parties’ neuroses or attempts to dissemble, hide information and escape legal responsibilities. In collaborative divorce, accountability through effective team development is the goal.

Collaborative divorce will not substitute for the court process in all cases. But for those individuals who have a genuine concern for their children’s well being and a desire to be open, honest and civilized, collaborative divorce may be the perfect solution.