Tuesday, February 12, 2008

How to Set Goals for Collaborative Cases

At the first of the year, many people spend time coming up with their New Year's Resolutions (lose weight, make more money, spend more time with the kids, etc.). They are setting goals for themselves for the upcoming year. If done with sufficient thoughtfulness, the effort can be really beneficial. Weighing different choices, looking at the pros and cons, and making commitments to action are all important steps that theoretically can lead to a better life, if the resolutions are truly incorporated into your life. The Resolutions provide guidance and reinforcement your actions in trying to attain goals.

Collaborative Law also relies on goals to set the agenda for the process. Usually at the first joint meeting, the attorneys and any other professionals in the case help both parties clearly define their most important broad goals for their life. They usually will consider both short-term and long-term goals. This is one of the most important steps in the process because it determines what the issues are and what the parties want and need to achieve.

Although we are all used to setting goals in some fashion, whether it be New Year's Resolutions or career goals or personal fitness goals or some other type, the parties to a family law matter often have trouble coming up with and defining the goals for their lives. To provide some guidance in the Collaborative Law context, here are some tips for setting goals:

1. Talk about broad, high-level goals that can encompass a number of actions. A good goal would be to ensure that the children have the financial ability to graduate from college, which opens up a discussion about various means of accomplishing it. A not-so-broad goal would be to have the father pay for college tuition for the kids. It sounds similar, but it really limits the options, and unnecessarily so. There could be other sources of funds and there may be other expenses to pay to enable a child to go to college. The broader statement of the goal provides a better opportunity to find solutions that are acceptable to both parties and benefit the child.

2. Make the goals clearly defined so that they are meaningful. For example, wanting to have adequate funds to pay for graduate school for one of the spouses is much easier to deal with than to want to have more time with the children or have a happier life. The last two are very broad goals, but aren't really very clear. The graduate school goal is not so narrow that it limits the options, but it also has enough detail that it can be understood and the parties can brainstorm solutions to provide adequate funding.

3. Make the goals achievable. The goals should be realistic, although not necessarily easy to accomplish. If you have a 16-year-old child, recognize that the child has a mind of her own and you may not be able to impose your will on her. Instead of having, as a goal, that the child would spend every other weekend with you, you might suggest working out a cooperative arrangement for parent and child to have a mutually acceptable schedule together. If there's not enough money already in a retirement account, you may not be able to provide adequate funds for retirement from that account in a short time period, but you might be able to discover other ways to deal with the retirement situation, so your goal could be something like providing the best use of the existing retirement assets to set up the maximum level of retirement account growth that would be safely possible.

4. Don't confuse the means or method for a goal. If you want to improve your relationship with a child, there are a number of ways to do so. Have regular visits at times when the child is willing and able to spend time. (For a younger child, you might get a standardized or regular schedule. For an older child, you may need to carve out shorter periods of time that don't interfere with school, studying, dates, sports, computer games with friends, etc.) Those are all means of accomplishing the goal of maintaining or improving a close relationship with a child.

5. Set important goals. Think about the things that are the most important to you or that would affect your health, safety or financial well-being. Deal with those topics and develop goals for them. Don't waste your time on unimportant or hypothetical or irrelevant goals. Don't let others tell you what "should" be your goals. Don't waste your time on impossible goals, although challenging yourself to stretch a little is appropriate and beneficial.

Following these steps will help you formulate meaningful goals which will help you successfully navigate the Collaborative process. (BTW: If your lawyer is a member of the Collaborative Law Institute of Texas, he or she should be able to give you a workbook that will also help you come up with your goals.) Good luck!

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