Collaborative divorce, like divorce mediation, puts the emphasis on reaching a settlement without acrimonious and costly court battles. In a collaborative divorce, both spouses hire attorneys who know how to handle the divorce in a nonadversarial way. The spouses and their attorneys work together in “four-way” meetings, often without the assistance of a mediator.
Collaborative divorce frequently involves other professionals who work with the attorneys in the collaborative process. Here are some of the team members who might be involved in a collaborative divorce. You won’t always use all of them—you and your attorney can pick and choose based on the facts of your case and your needs. In general, your collaborative attorney will refer you to certain professionals in each field who are familiar with the collaborative process and can work effectively with the attorneys and other professionals.
Each spouse might have a divorce coach to help them deal with their emotions and participate constructively in the four-way meetings. Often, the divorce coach will be a mental health professional who meets with the spouse before the process begins and then, if needed, between four-way meetings to debrief and plan for the next negotiating session. Not everyone needs a divorce coach, but if you’re having trouble managing your emotions in the divorce process, a coach can be a big help. Sometimes the spouses agree to share one coach, who they usually will see together.
Many divorce cases benefit from the help of an accountant or financial planner, who can analyze the spouses’ financial situation and either generate or give feedback on settlement options. One of the benefits of collaborative divorce is the cost savings from using only one financial person, rather than having each party hire an expert and battle over whose epxert is right about the best way to divide property. The financial special could be an accountant, a financial planner, or a specialized financial professional called a divorce financial planner.
If you have children, a professional child custody evaluator or child psychologist trained in child development can help. The child specialist can meet with both the parents and the children, and give an assessment of the children’s needs and advice about how best to meet them in the context of custody and visitation.
While it may seem counterintuitive, using a “team” of professionals can actually make the divorce cheaper. Lawyers—even good ones trained in collaborative divorce—don’t have some of the specialized skills you might need to move things along. Even if they did, their hourly rates are often significantly higher than the rates charged by coaches, child advocates, and financial specialists. As long as these services are coordinated to avoid duplication, you’ll probably save money in the long run.
The spouses and their collaborative attorneys usually sign a “no court” collaborative divorce agreement at the beginning of the case, committing themselves to work collaboratively toward a mutually acceptable settlement, and requiring both attorneys to withdraw from the case if either spouse ends the process and goes to court. In some places, the agreement is submitted to the court and becomes a court order. Typically, the other collaborative professionals also sign “no court” agreements that commit them to working toward settlement and require them to withdraw if the case becomes contested. The “no court” agreement is a strong incentive to follow through with the collaborative process. If your lawyer and other professional advisers are all required to withdraw from the case, going to court will require you to hire a new team and get everyone up to speed for the litigation. This will be enormously expensive and timeconsuming.
Most of what happens in a collaborative divorce takes place in meetings. The first meeting will be between each spouse and his or her own collaborative attorney. After that, both spouses and their attorneys attend four-way meetings from the beginning of the case until a settlement is reached. Along the way as needed, the spouses will again meet separately with their attorneys. Other members of the collaborative team may attend selected four-ways when necessary. In addition, the spouses and various members of the collaborative team sometimes meet without the attorneys in order to develop necessary information or prepare for four-way meetings. In between meetings, the spouses may have “homework” to do just like spouses in mediation, such as completing worksheets and assembling information and documents needed for the meetings.
In a contested divorce case, a great deal of emphasis is placed on what each spouse is “entitled to” and on the legally correct result of any disputed issue. The lawyers argue with each other about the law. They try to persuade the judge of the correctness of their respective interpretations of the law as it applies to the case. What is fair, practical, or in the best interests of the spouses and the children tends to get lost in the shuffle.
In a collaborative divorce, as in a mediation, the law is still important, but it is just one factor to consider in deciding what is best for you, your spouse, and your children. Other factors—such as your individual goals and priorities—are just as important. The collaborative process is designed to examine all the angles, so that you end up with an agreement that is equitable and workable, even if it doesn’t look just like what a judge would order.
It's also possible to work with attorneys who use a collaborative approach without the “no court” agreement. You and your spouse might decide to work with lawyers who offer a collaborative approach to negotiating a settlement without having you sign an agreement requiring them to withdraw from the case if you litigate. This is sometimes called “cooperative” divorce.
To learn more, see our section on Divorce without Court. For in-depth information, check out Divorce Without Court: A Guide to Mediation and Collaborative Divorce, by Katherine E. Stoner.