Sunday, September 30, 2007

How to Avoid Financial Mistakes in Divorce

There was a nice story in Forbes in February 2005 entitled "Top Financial Divorce Mistakes". It listed 9 common mistakes and how to avoid them. The list is actually a good example of why Collaborative Law can really be beneficial. Here's the list with a commentary showing how Collaborative Law fits in.

1. Having unrealistic expectations. That's actually a very serious problem which can sabotage a Collaborative case (just like it does a regular litigated case). If both attorneys, and any other professionals involved, can spot such expectations at the outset, disaster can be avoided, if the party is willing to listen to reason. The case should not be handled Collaboratively if one or both parties have unreasonable goals. One of the good things about Collaborative Law is that the goals and expectations are explicitly discussed at the outset, so there is time for re-orientation or changing approaches. There is a greater chance of uncovering unrealistic thinking by using the Collaborative approach since the expectations are openly discussed at the outset.

2. Not communicating. It is impossible to not communicate with your attorney or spouse in Collaborative Law. There are discussions before and after joint meetings and many cases utilize a mental health professional (MHP) to facilitate communication.

3. Getting into an endless battle. Collaborative law focuses on the future and not on revisiting past battles and issues. An MHP can help both parties avoid re-engaging in old arguments and to stay on track focusing on their goals.

4. Getting hung up on the numbers. One of the key elements of Collaborative Law is interest-based negotiating, rather than positional bargaining that is common in the litigation approach. Parties in litigation often do get hung up on numbers and percentages. In Collaborative Law, the parties work to achieve their goals and strive to create customized solutions to problems where the numbers are secondary.

5. Focusing on the present and not on the future. Using a neutral financial professional (FP), it is possible to understand the present situation, but a sometimes greater benefit is being able to project out into the future, both in terms of your needs and in terms of various means of meeting those needs. The FP is an expert at analyzing the future needs of the parties and can help educate the parties about the opportunities available that are consistent with their goals.

6. Forgetting to assess tax. With a financial professional in the case, it is standard to consider the tax consequences of any alternatives under discussion, something that is not often done in litigated cases.

7. Overlooking important information. The financial professional will make sure the parties provide all necessary financial information and understand it. There is rarely such a person working in a litigated case. A Collaborative case using a neutral FP results in a better analysis of the parties' financial situation.

8. Failing to untangle all joint finances. The parties can have direct discussions to address issues of joint finances and will have the benefit of two attorneys, a financial professional and sometimes a mental health professional who will help them decide whether or not to keep financial ties intact.

9. Failing to take into account the amount of time you'll need to get your career back on track. That is a topic that would ordinarily be directly addressed by the parties, their attorneys, the financial professional and perhaps the mental health professional. In addition, the parties may set up a plan for training and support to cover the likely period of time for re-adjustment into the work force. With Collaborative Law and the team working together, there is a much greater chance of direct action being taken to benefit the spouse who has been out of the workforce.

The Forbes article pointed out some significant and fairly common problems that occur in litigated divorces. They illustrate some of the many reasons why Collaborative Law often is the better option for divorces.

Monday, September 24, 2007

How to Settle Relocation/Geographic Restrictions Issues

One of the most difficult and emotional issues that arises in family law cases is relocation, or moving the children to another area. When both parents have been active and have close relationships with the children, this becomes a very difficult topic to discuss, much less reach an agreement on. Many divorce decrees provide a geographic restriction on the parent who has primary possession of the children. The most common language used in Tarrant County is to restrict the children's residence to Tarrant and contiguous counties (ones that physically touch Tarrant County).

When one parent has not been very involved in spending time with the children, it is easier for the other parent to move the children somewhere else. Sometimes, the non-custodial parent doesn't object. Other times, the non-custodial parent may object, but the court will permit the move with the thought that there is not much relationship to be harmed by the move.

The difficult case is where both parents are good and actively involved parents, and the primary custodial parent has a good reason to be moving, such as a mandatory job transfer. That is the type of case that can probably be better handled by Collaborative Law.

The case could be approached as follows:

1. The first step is to determine the underlying goals, needs and interests of the parties. The goals might include such things as providing quality education, a safe and comfortable home, having extended family around (with various benefits), and maintaining an excellent, active relationship with both parents. In a case like this, it would be helpful to have a neutral child specialist to work with both parties, beginning with developing the goals.

2. The second step is to gather the facts. Is the move voluntary or involuntary? Are there any benefits or any disadvantages to the children? A move could be based on any of the following situations: career advancement, required transfer, voluntary move, a move to meet a child's needs, or a move to take advantage of special opportunities elsewhere, among other reasons. Other factors to be considered could include, among other things, the distance of the move, transportation possibilities, the ages of the children, transportation costs, and how much time or what type of time each parent had been spending with the children.

3. The third step is to generate options. Again, a child specialist could be invaluable here. Among the options for many cases would be: move, don't move, one or both parents take a new job, different transportation methods, different ways of sharing or offsetting the costs, both could move, change custody, change the allocation of time with the children, permit extra time, try
video conferencing over the internet with the children, arrange frequent phone calls or emailing, or change the holiday schedules, among other things.

4. The fourth step is to evaluate the options and negotiate to an agreement. In the course of evaluating the various ideas, new ideas or plans could emerge. The child specialist can be very helpful in this phase as well.

Relocation can be a very emotional topic for involved parents. Collaborative Law provides the structure, assistance and opportunities to work through the difficult issues in a civilized manner that can lead to an acceptable solution that allows the parents to remain on good terms and assures that the children's best interests are protected.

Friday, September 21, 2007

A Resource to Compare Schools

When parents live in different school districts, there must be a decision about which school a child will attend. Many factors can be considered when making that decision. As in many other issues, it can be really helpful to get some objective facts to use to compare schools.

J. Benjamin Stevens, who writes the South Carolina Family Law blog, had a helpful post recently dealing with the school issue. He mentioned the web site, "", which can provide information about multiple schools and compare them. It is a free service provided by Standard & Poor's. The site has information about the performance of students on reading and math standardized tests, the number of students attending and the student-teacher ratio, among other things.

Such objective information can be very helpful for parents working together to find the best educational opportunities for their children.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

How to Save Money in a Collaborative Divorce

When people learn about Collaborative Law as they are about to begin the process of divorce, many become very interested in trying it because of the opportunities for creative solutions, privacy, control over the outcome, civility, etc. that are associated with Collaborative Law. Some are a little skeptical about whether they and their spouse can get along well enough to work out an agreement. When a Collaborative attorney explains that the Texas model of Collaborative Law offers the assistance of a neutral mental health professional (MHP), also known as a Communication Specialist or Coach, to help both parties operate at their most effective and cooperative levels, they like the idea, but sometimes worry about the cost.

What we have learned is that the cost of the MHP is a great investment because the MHP helps both parties communicate appropriately and maintain a safe and relatively calm environment. Having a neutral communication specialist during the Collaborative process actually helps meetings be more productive and less argumentative than they could be otherwise. In addition to being more comfortable and satisfied with the process, the parties actually end up saving money.

In a Collaborative Divorce, the phrase, "more is less" really makes sense. By adding another participant to the process, the parties operate more efficiently and spend less time arguing. The time they spend in meetings is productive because they are assisted by the neutral MHP who helps the parties communicate in more helpful ways that advance their own interests. While it may seem personally satisfying to berate a spouse for various faults, those comments rarely contribute to an eagerness for that spouse to want to settle.

There are some potential difficulties even in Collaborative cases with parties who really want the process to work out. Inevitably, there are some tough, emotional meetings that challenge the abilities of the parties to maintain the civility that is a hallmark of Collaborative law. Hiring a neutral mental health professional may be the single best way to save money in a Collaborative Divorce.

(A slightly different version of this posting was previously published in the Divorce and Family Law in Tarrant County, Texas blog.)