Teresa McUsic

Collaborative divorce provides alternative to traditional court fight

Collaborative law provides a negotiated alternative to divorce court for couples who are breaking up.
Collaborative law provides a negotiated alternative to divorce court for couples who are breaking up.

This week, a group of attorneys, financial planners and family therapists met in Dallas to receive training in an alternative to divorce proceedings called collaborative law.

Collaborative divorce involves all three types of professionals in a negotiated process between parties as an alternative to litigation.

Texas was the first state in the country to pass a statute enabling this path outside of family court back in 1991, but the process is still in its infancy.

“Of the 75,000 divorces annually in Texas, less than 7,000 are going collaborative,” said Curtis Harrison II, a Plano attorney whose practice is partially in collaborative law.

Those who champion the process are working to increase awareness, however.

The Dallas-based Collaborative Law Institute, which has around 300 members, announced this week that it is changing its name to Collaborative Divorce Texas, said Harrison, who is on the board.

More importantly, the group is beefing up its credentials, Harrison said.

Beyond receiving training in collaborative law, the group will peer review an applicant’s education and experience, and then award a level one badge, reflecting a credentialed practitioner in collaborative law, or level two for a master’s level practitioner, Harrison said.

This will help separate those who receive training from those who actually practice the process, he said.

“There are a lot of lookalikes who put the collaborative law designation on their website, but then tell clients to go to court,” he said. “The new credential badges will show whether they are applying their knowledge and demonstrate experience.”

The designation will appear on the search tool for collaborative law specialists on the new website, collaborativedivorcetexas.com.

Awareness is slowly growing for this new approach to ending a marriage, said Scott Clarke, a certified divorce financial analyst in Colleyville and co-author of Divorce: The Collaborative Way.

“I’m working with a much more diverse attorney pool than I ever have before because people are asking for this,” said Clark, whose entire practice is in collaborative divorce. “I would estimate that one out of three of my cases are with a new attorney. Before it was a tight circle.”

The training offered by CDT asks professionals to shift their thinking, Clarke said.

Attorneys are litigators, but collaborative law asks them to meet both clients’ interests and goals. Mental health professionals move from a therapist role into a facilitating role and financial planners provide a neutral voice on what happens to each party’s finances, he said.

On average, divorcing couples can expect a 30 percent increase in living costs once they split, Clarke said.

“It’s almost impossible to not have a 30 percent addition for rent payment,” Clarke says.

But collaborative divorce gives couples a great deal of freedom in how they split up their financial lives, compared with court proceedings, he added. Clarke provides long-term projections to show how different financial paths play out for both parties.

Collaborative law isn’t for every case, especially if the divorce includes domestic violence or fraudulent actions like one party hiding money, Clarke said.

But divorces that involve infidelity, drugs, alcohol or other related issues, in addition to incompatibility, are done routinely with collaborative law, he said.

Harrison said the process allows for more creative solutions than family court can allow.

“Collaborative law is rooted in interest-based negotiations,” he said. “We’re there to meet everyone’s needs. It’s a wonderful tool.”

Traditional family courts are often limited in their solutions, Harrison said.

“The courts are not designed for family conflict,” he said. “In a courtroom, there are winners and losers.”

A therapist’s role in collaborative law is to provide better communication during negotiations. In addition, when children are involved, the clients work with a therapist on a detailed parenting plan tp cover issues until the children reach 18.

Those sessions also teach co-parenting etiquette and acceptable behavior to the parents.

Harrison said collaborative law is slowly expanding beyond divorce and can be applied to contract disputes, contested probate and other related civil issues between parties.

It is also taking off in other parts of the world, including Canada, the United Kingdom and western Europe, he said.

For more information, try the CDT website or the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals at www.collaborativepractice.com.

Teresa McUsic’s column appears Saturdays. TMcUsic@SavvyConsumer.net