Wednesday, December 24, 2008

5 Tips on How to Tell the Kids

One of the hardest things to do in a divorce is to break the news to the children. In some cases, the kids may strongly suspect what's going on and they may actually welcome the change, but in a great number of cases, it is a very emotional time for parents and children. To help deal with the issue, here are 5 tips to help you tell the children in the best way possible in your situation.

1. Work together. If the parents can make a joint announcement, in person, it can be a little reassuring to the children even though they may hate the message. Showing that the parents can still work together, even when they are splitting up, will help. Be sure that the parents are saying the same things and are coordinated with each other. Both parents should plan what to say and work together to carry it out. They should avoid getting into an argument and they don't need to go into great detail about fault or other adult issues.

2. Work with a Mental Health Professional (MHP). In Fort Worth and Tarrant County Collaborative cases, and in many other areas, MHPs help the parents know what to say and how to say it. Sometimes parents can come up with appropriate messages, but often they don't have a clue, even when they are trying to soften the blow to the children. An MHP can help put together a discussion that fits the children's development and needs. Think though the scene and be prepared for a bad reaction from the children. Learn what to expect and how to respond to various reactions.

3. Timing is Important. Think about what else is going on in the child's life. If the children are at finals time, or near some athletic or other extra-curricular event that they participate in, it may be better to wait to tell them. Pay attention to holidays, health and school. Don't break the news when the kids either can't handle it or when getting them upset will lead to bad consequences outside of the divorce issues. Telling the children just before or during a major holiday or family event can create a very unhappy association for the child. Try to make the announcement a little ways before or after the holiday.

4. Reassure your Children. Make it very clear that your decision to get a divorce is not based on something the kids did or didn't do -- it's not their fault. Make sure the children know that they didn't do anything wrong. And the children should understand that there's nothing they can do to "fix" the problem. Reassurance also includes having both parents demonstrate to the kids that both parents still love them. Spend time with them, listen to their concerns and respond helpfully. Show them your relationship and commitment to them remain strong.

5. Give the Children Reason to be Hopeful. Explain the good things that can come from a divorce (even though you may have a hard time with what you are doing). Again, working with an MHP is probably a necessary part of creating a hopeful message for the children. Depending on their ages, the children may get excited to learn about a new home where they will have their own room, new play arrangements, etc. Older kids may appreciate having two homes with less fighting. Find some good that will come from the divorce and focus on that. If you can't come up with anything good, get help from the MHP or your family or friends. Even if you don't want the divorce, you can find something good to come out of it.

Note: Your best opportunity, IMHO, to tell the kids, in a less damaging manner, about an upcoming divorce is by opting for Collaborative Law and working with a mental health professional to prepare a joint announcement that fits the needs and abilities of the children.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Don't be Listening to Others

Usually, when people sign up to use Collaborative Law, they are really fired up at the outset. They see the advantages of using a peaceful and dignified means to settle their divorce or other family law issue. They may have researched Collaborative Law and decided it was their best option. They may have been referred to a Collaborative lawyer and then learned about the process. Regardless of how they got to Collaborative Law, the parties usually start out open to it and willing to follow the rules.

In Texas Collaborative Law cases, we have some standardized forms for the Participation Agreement everyone signs and for rules of conduct. Most attorneys also start out with some common instructions which normally include a warning not to seek advice from others about the Collaborative case. There are several reasons why this is important.
  • People outside the process don't know all the facts of the case. Giving advice based on incomplete information will almost guarantee a bad result. Without knowing all the facts that were considered, including the nonverbal communication that takes place, an advisor can't accirately evaluate what's going on.

  • The advisor likely is not trained in Collaborative Law and doesn't understand why and how the process works. (Someone trained in Collaborative Law is probably not going to be advising on the side because they know not to do that.) What you explain to the untrained advisor will probably not make much sense and the advisor is likely to be very critical of the process out of ignorance.

  • Most outside advisors who have experienced divorce have gone through the litigation approach. What works well in litigation may be very destructive in a Collaborative case. Don't listen to someone whose frame of reference is litigation. They don't know what they're talking about.

  • Many people who have been divorced and are now advising you will bring biases from their own experiences which can lead to some really inappropriate advice. They could be biased against men, women, husbands, wives, grandparents, teachers, judges, lawyers, counselors, CPAs, child specialists, or some other type of person who has a role in a divorce. The advisor's assumptions can lead to mistaken conclusions and bad decisions.
  • It is very common for friends to become very protective about a friend going through a divorce. As a result, the friends may question things and create unwarranted doubts about the process because they don't see the process going as favorably as they would like, even though they don't know the facts or how the process really works. Those doubts can eventually derail the process if the client doesn't ignore them.
Best Advice: Ignore friends and advisors. When you have questions or doubts or if you don't understand something, talk with your Collaborative lawyer or the neutral mental health professional about your concerns. The best advice comes from someone who is trained in the process who has actually been in the joint meetings and knows the facts and how decisions have been made. It can be tough to tune out well-meaning family and friends, but that can mean the difference between success and failure. Ask your advisors to trust you. Tell them you will explain what happened and how it happened, after a final agreement is reached. Remember, it's your life and your family!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Importance of Keeping Your Word

In a Collaborative case, like in litigation or in life in general, you need to learn to keep your word when you reach an agreement. Normally, an agreement is the result of following the usual Collaborative process, beginning with identifying goals, then gathering information, brainstorming, evaluating options and then coming to an agreement. It is a logical, effective process. When you go through those steps, reach an agreement, and then later back out of the agreement, that creates problems. It wastes time and money. It creates distrust in a process that values transparency. It is very frustrating for everyone else.

If you get tempted to back out of an agreement, please think twice before you do it. If your change of mind is based on advice from someone who was not in the meetings or someone who is not trained in Collaborative Law, please hold off and discuss the situation first with your attorney and the neutral mental health specialist. They can help you stay on the right path and look out for your best interests.

Until a binding settlement agreement is reached, either party can theoretically change their mind, but doing so can create some serious problems. Think about it, seek advice and then try not to break the agreement unless new facts have emerged. The best way to avoid problems is to be very careful when you are entering into the agreements in the first place.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Resolving Tough Issues is Hard Work *

*But it still beats the alternative.Two of the most common misconceptions about Collaborative Law are that it is set up only to handle the "nice" cases where everyone is basically agreeable, and the process is painless and easy.

Contrary to the image many people have of Collaborative Law, problems do arise in meetings, and between meetings. Sometimes, those problems are very challenging and sometimes they threaten the viability of the Collaborative process, even with experienced Collaborative lawyers and other professionals, and even including a neutral mental health specialist. Collaborative lawyers don't have a magic wand to wave to make conflict, anger and pain disappear. Even in cases that start out very amicably, there will usually be at least one time when things get a little tense. The message to remember: That's normal. Don't get too nervous about conflict. We can usually handle it if everyone will follow their original commitments to the Collaborative process.

Why there are problems? There are several reasons why progress can become difficult.

  • The process operates in an environment of conflict. Most divorces involve people with very different agendas, even when they both agree that they want the divorce. The reason for divorce is often deep-seated conflict between the parties over one or more issues. The amount of conflict expressed is different from case to case, but there will always be some conflict or the parties would have already settled.

  • The process deals with very emotional issues. Whether the issues are financial, honesty, betrayal or something else, the problems often trigger strong emotional reactions. Sometimes it's hard to discover the underlying issues, but there's usually at least some emotion showing on the surface. And it's not uncommon for people to suddenly switch from happy to angry or fearful in an instant. Words, facial expressions, tone of voice and many other seemingly small details can lead to a major mood swing.

  • Very stressful. As a marriage unravels, many tough issues must be decided and the parties face difficult and uncertain futures. Lives must start fresh and often the parties are not well equipped to start over. Parties are asking, "Can I do it?" and "How do I do that?". They often have to leave a well-established comfort zone and find a new home, new friends and a new job. They also find lots of stress.
So, what can be done to calm the waters?

1. Listen to the attorneys and professionals in your case. They are trained to deal with difficult situations and upset people. They want a successful resolution to your case and will do whatever they can to assist you in reaching an agreement that works for both parties.

2. Follow the rules you agreed to. Before the negotiations begin, you will sign a participation agreement that explains how you and the other party are to act. You should discuss any questions or concerns you have about the process, before signing up. Many attorneys and other professionals encourage the parties to discuss and agree to other rules of conduct as well. If you will follow the guidelines for conduct, the chances of success are greatly improved. The rules really work.

3. Slow down your reactions. Take a deep breath before reacting when you are provoked. Even in Collaborative, parties will sometimes say stupid, mean and inappropriate things in anger. If you will hold back, you can avoid escalating the situation. If you still respond after pausing, you may soften the response.

4. Keep things in perspective. Not every issue is important. Think about the big picture. Be prepared to concede on some issues, especially if that helps you get something else you may be interested in.

5. Avoid the temptation to retaliate. You may be better off in the long run by holding your tongue rather than getting upset at every provocation. The benefit of a final settlement will probably far outweigh the short-lived feeling of satisfaction from a clever or mean response.

6. Communicate. Everyone is at a disadvantage when you don't express your opinions, wishes and concerns. Remember to be respectful, but tell everyone what's on your mind. No changes will be made to deal with your concerns unless everyone else knows what's on your mind.

Remember, Collaborative Law is still better than litigation. If you don't try hard to succeed, the easy course of action is to return to the pattern of arguments that have probably been used for years. The better approach is to follow the suggestions listed above. Stick to the basics and you will be fine. Talk to your attorney and the mental health specialist, if you have one, and they can help you through the rough times. Experienced Collaborative lawyers have been through many such situations and can help you survive and reach a favorable settlement that works for everyone.

Friday, December 5, 2008

House Rules for House Sharing During Divorce

NEWS FLASH!!! More couples continue to live together as they go through a divorce. What had already seemed like a more common situation has been happening even more often lately as the U.S. economy is experiencing a broad downturn. I had previously noticed a trend in Collaborative cases, and sometimes even in litigation, but the slump in the housing market has made the situation more of a necessity for many families who can't afford two house payments. The earlier experiences I had noticed seemed to relate more to families who still got along well and who were very concerned with sharing time with the children and minimizing the stress of splitting the household. Now, we are adding families who don't get along as well who stay together out of economic necessity.

In some of the still-together families, problems can arise as the adults are entering the new world of separation and single adulthood. To help all the house-sharing families, I offer the following "House Rules" topics that usually need to be addressed to avoid or minimize conflict within the household.
  • Cooking and Meals. Do the adults share the food, the cost of purchasing food and the food preparation, or do they each do their own thing? Do they eat together? Does one eat in the kitchen and the other in the dining room? Who feeds the kids?
  • Cleaning. Who cleans up the kitchen? Do they clean up their own mess? Who cleans which rooms in the house? Who cleans up for the kids or gets the kids to do their share of the cleaning? Who buys the cleaning supplies?
  • Laundry. Who's in charge? Does each adult do their own laundry? What about the kids' laundry? Does there need to be a schedule for use of the machines? Who buys the cleaning supplies?
  • Use of Space. Do both parties get equal rights to the use of the whole house or are the rooms and areas allocated in some way? Who's in charge of the kids' rooms and stuff?
  • Sleeping Arrangements. Does the couple still share a bed or bedroom? Where does everyone sleep?
  • The Yard. Who maintains the yard, including mowing and watering? Who gets to use the yard and when?
  • Bills. Who pays the mortgage and utilities? Will there be any reimbursement?
  • TVs. Will everyone have their own TV or do they have to share?
  • Computer Use. Will everyone have their own, or do they share? If they share, there may have to be agreements about when each can use it. Will any privacy be protected on the computer?
  • Guests. Guests of any nature should probably be very limited. Guests who are romantically linked to one of the parties probably shouldn't be brought home.
  • Sharing Time with the Kids. Sometimes conflicts develop over who is responsible for certain kid activities or duties. Sometimes conflicts develop over who gets to have fun with the kids at different times. If there is a possible conflict, the parents should coordinate their time with the kids in advance.
  • Discussion of the Divorce. This should probably be off limits or, at most, very limited. People going through divorce usually can't resolve tough issues on their own. If the parties are going through a Collaborative divorce, they have probably agreed (in the Participation Agreement) not to negotiate outside the joint meetings.

If there is an agreement for the parties to share the house during a Collaborative divorce, it would be helpful to discuss the above issues, and any others that come up, with the help of the professionals in the case. The discussion is not highly technical or legalistic. It's really just a good idea to resolve these issues before they become serious problems.

Good luck if you are sharing your house!