Friday, June 15, 2012

What to Expect at the 1st Joint Meeting (and Why)

Collaborative Law is different enough from litigation that we insist on having a first joint meeting to put in a foundation so that everyone can be comfortable in the process.  This will be a brief introduction to the process.

1. Introductions.   We start off the first meeting by introducing ourselves to each other.  We usually have a team that includes two attorneys, a mental health professional (MHP) and a financial professional (FP).   Since we will all work together in an informal atmosphere, it is helpful for everyone to get to know who they will be working with.  We like to keep things informal and normally go by first names.  In contrast to litigation, attorneys and all parties speak directly to each other, which usually improves communication.

The first meeting is usually one of the few meetings when the whole team is together.  Most of the time, the parties work with just one professional at a time.  In some situations, if it helps the parties be more comfortable, we have the MHP present when the parties are working with the FP in gathering and organizing the financial records.  The MHP normally works alone with parties doing the preliminary work on kid issues.

2.  Reviewing the Participation Agreement.  Everyone should receive and read an advance copy of the Participation Agreement.  (A generic copy is available on my web site.)  The attorneys normally give out copies in advance and often review the agreement with their client.  We really emphasize the Agreement because it is carefully drafted to educate the participants and to clarify what will be happening, or what could happen, in the Collaborative  process.  We want to avoid misunderstandings and to encourage realistic expectations.

3.  Road Map to Resolution.  This document, also available on my web site, outlines  the steps of the Collaborative process.  We follow a logical, standard pattern that leads to an agreement that both parties are comfortable with.  The steps start with discussing the goals of both parties, researching the facts of the case, determining the issues, coming up with options and then evaluating the options and reaching agreements. Experience has shown  there are better results when we follow the process and don't skip steps and jump ahead.

4.  Rules of  Conduct.  These are reminders of common sense rules of how to act in meetings.  We want everyone to be comfortable and feel safe, while effectively  moving to a mutually agreeable settlement.  The Rules are good reminders in the heat of the moment when discussions sometimes get difficult.

5.  Goals.  One of the most important steps in the first meeting is often harder than it might seem on the surface.  We want the parties to each come up with their broad goals relating what's important to them and how they would like the case resolved.  We insist that the parties go beyond wanting a "fair" settlement and a"good relationship" or "as much time as possible" with the kids.

Some useful goals that we sometimes get are:  Having an adequate level of support until a party finishes school; Having financial security at retirement; Minimizing debt coming out of the divorce; Being involved with the child on a daily or weekly basis; or Having enough cash for a down payment on a house.  These are broad, but somewhat specific and they give us targets to work for.

6.  Dealing with Immediate Issues.  Sometimes we need to help the parties deal with interim issues of paying bills, sharing time with the kids and who stays in the house, among other things.  We can have brief discussions of such issues to help the parties until the next joint meeting.

7.  Schedule Future Meetings.  We usually schedule one or two joint meetings, as well as individual meetings with the mental health professional and the financial professional.

What's Not Included:  Don't expect to jump in and start negotiating at the first meeting.

Caveat:  Different Collaborative professionals will have slight variations on how they like to conduct a first meeting.  Always talk with your own professionals to find out what they will be doing.

Friday, June 1, 2012

5 Reasons to Use Collaborative Law for a Divorce after a Long-Term Marriage

Divorces for Baby Boomers and others who have been in long-term marriages can be complicated and emotionally difficult.  Unfortunately, the court system doesn't provide a very gentle or nuanced response to divorce situations.  Most often, courts take a one-size-fits-all approach.  They apply standard guidelines for child support and visitation and will divide assets on a roughly 50-50 basis, unless there are special reasons that might justify a  55-45 or 60-40 split, or something in that neighborhood.  Although the purse strings have loosened somewhat over the past few years, alimony is still not much of a factor.

One of the best ways to get an appropriate, customized, creative agreement is to utilize Collaborative Law.  Here are some reasons why it's a good approach for ending long-term marriages.

1.  The Collaborative process allows the parties to respectfully manage their emotions.    Both parties usually work with a neutral mental health professional (MHP) who can help the parties acknowledge anger, fear, anxiety or whatever other emotion shows up.  The MHP can also share constructive ways to deal with their emotions, and also help the other party accept the emotions without overreacting.

2.  A Collaborative divorce can proceed with reasonable speed to accommodate the needs of both parties. The process does not rely on arbitrary timetables that must be followed.  The parties, with professional guidance, work out their own schedule and plan for resolving the issues.  Collaborative Law allows both parties to be comfortable with the scheduling.  Sometimes the parties must take some financial steps, such as planning or finding employment, that  will take some time, and it is easy to find the time for that in Collaborative Law.

3.  Expert financial guidance is easily available.  We usually start off with a neutral financial professional (FP) who manages the gathering and organizing of the financial records. That is much more efficient than relying on attorneys and their staffs to supervise the financial information. If we need specialized financial help, a neutral, joint expert can be hired to deal with the issue.

4.  Privacy is protected.  Virtually all work is done in private, confidential meetings.  We don't have hearings at the courthouse and don't do formal discovery or depositions.  We reach private agreements as we progress, instead of having multiple public hearings.

5.  Cost is reasonable.  Collaborative Law is not cheap, but there are some cost savings.  We utilize single, neutral experts whenever needed, in addition to the MHP and FP.  When there is a business or real estate to be appraised, we use one agreed-upon expert instead of dueling experts.  Much of the preliminary work is done with the FP and MHP, without the attorneys being present, which saves a great deal of money.  Even when we have the full team present with the parties, meetings generally run more efficiently because of the experts guiding the discussions. 

Ending a long-term marriage is complicated and deserves a careful, competent and unrushed process. Collaborative Law is usually the best approach for everyone involved.