What do we think about as practitioners when we consider adding or maintaining a collaborative component to our overall law practice? Certainly there are the basic considerations of marketing and cost-effectiveness that make any practice component financially justifiable and for many, the analysis may end there. Beyond that, however, there is the lure of creating alternatives that support and empower a client through a difficult time. I’m writing here of a collaborative practice that permits the practitioner to reach deep into one’s self to access curiosity, generosity and empathy in order to create solutions that satisfy not only the deeper needs of the client, but as well, allows the practitioner to experience a spiritual satisfaction that goes far beyond bottom line considerations.
Divorce for many clients can be a defining moment: it can be a time of taking stock, of reflecting upon one’s choices, of admitting to mistakes, of acknowledging historical patterns, of exploring new, previously unthought-of directions, of experiencing sometimes frightening emotional highs and lows. At its very best, the divorce process can present an opportunity for the client to have a deeply spiritual experience. I’m not talking here about a traditional religious experience but of one that expands the individual’s awareness of their own human spirit. To be part of that growth and to nurture its nascent roots within a collaborative paradigm is the privilege of the practitioner. By accessing one’s own generosity and compassion as support for the client, the practitioner as well has an opportunity for personal spiritual growth through the guidance of the client’s journey.
Clients come to the practitioner vulnerable and in distress. To say that they are not at their best is an understatement. They are being divorced from, or they are realizing that they will have less time with their children, or that the financial stability to which they’ve grown accustomed will be altered. Despite their stated willingness to enter into the collaborative process, there is a piece in them that is angry, resentful, afraid, tentative, defensive and reactive. They listen with acceptance to the theory of interests-based negotiation but at heart, they have a firmly seated personal position of fairness and justice. At the beginning, theirs is a surface acceptance of the collaborative paradigm and not a deeper understanding of the spiritual shifts that can be brought on by a collaborative negotiation. It is incumbent upon the practitioner to recognize this, and to understand that clients are often at the moment of signing the collaborative agreement unready to explore the potential of their evolving stories. They are not ready to give up the old trajectory of their lives and live in a new direction, and this presents a unique challenge to the collaborative practitioner that is not presented to the mediator or the litigator. It is at this point that the collaborative practitioner is invited into the client’s life and to be a part of the evolving story. This then is the challenge for the practitioner: to teach, to coach, to truly collaborate with the client and with the team, to create a result that responds to the deep needs of all the participants.
This is not about boundaries. A spiritual collaborative practice doesn’t require that we literally live our client’s journey. Rather, it is about the practitioner’s ability to open one’s heart, still the space, quiet the mind and listen, to ask questions and seek deeper responses as interests – true interests – are developed. St. Thomas Aquinas said, “Fear is such a powerful emotion for humans that when we allow it to take us over, it drives compassion right out of our hearts.” The client’s world of divorce is based in fear – fear of loss, fear of the unknown, fear of sorrow. Therefore, clients will always push toward a resolution but the practitioner may guide the negotiation away from neat and tidy resolutions and toward a deeper understanding of the client’s journey. As litigators, we are all about nurturing the fear and developing our postures. The collaborative practitioner’s role here is to hold tight to compassion, and to guide the client past the fear and into a place of options.
Recently, I’ve begun to consider the impact of a collaborative practice as well as the impact of compromise of collaborative principles upon the emotional life of the practitioner. Is it possible that a collaborative practice can impact us at a spiritual level, at its height enriching and empowering us as practitioners as well as individuals while when compromised leaving us longing and dissatisfied? I have come to believe that if we invest ourselves fully into the collaborative paradigm, we as practitioners can emerge with a deeper, more thoughtful understanding of human nature and thus, of ourselves.
By fully embracing the collaborative paradigm as practitioners, we have the opportunity to truly reach inside of ourselves and give to our clients the very best of our skills and the very best of our selves. Rather than provide them “with the answer” we instead strive to create an environment that allows the clients to determine the answer for themselves. Spiritually, this isn’t a new concept. Consider Matthew 4:19 – “Give a person a fish, and you feed that person for a day. Teach people to fish, and you feed the people for a lifetime.” The creation of a truly collaborative environment, one based upon identification with interests and not with positions, has the potential to enrich all who participate, professional as well as client, as we build upon an interrelated experience of interests-based negotiation.
The generosity of the collaborative practitioner, then, is to create and maintain such an environment. The client seeks a path to a goal, and this leads to position-based negotiations. Instead, the collaborative environment as guided by the practitioner says with every step we have arrived because with every step, we are addressing your interests. Maintaining a focus on interests and on being present enhances the collaborative experience for all participants – including the practitioner. It allows the collaborative team to experience a richness in the negotiation that is missing from a position-based negotiation which demands compromise in order to move forward. It is fulfilling and satisfying to all. In working through the collaborative paradigm for a client’s divorce, the practitioner can recognize and confront deep personal fears, making us more aware as individuals of our own motivations. Our role, then, is to keep the collaborative paradigm open, present and functioning. That role can easily become part of our spiritual practice for daily lives as we focus on being present and being open in our day to day activities.
As we strive toward a spiritually-based practice, our failures – those seemingly inevitable cases which seek to rush to judgment to just get it done – can sap our energy and cause us to question not only our skills but collaborative practice as a whole. As practitioners, we experience frustration and loss when a collaborative matter moves inexorably from interests-based to position-based negotiation and we are unable to redirect the negotiation back into the collaborative paradigm. However as we as individuals continue grow in our collaborative experience, I believe that practitioners will become more trusting of themselves, of their intuition and of their power within the team and that maintaining focus within the paradigm will become second nature. As we experience success within the collaborative paradigm, we become more confident. The personalities and challenges of the individual client, whether our own or from the “other side”, present no conflict for us to address because we begin to hear them through a filter of compassion and generosity.
For me, the success of any collaborative negotiation builds my confidence that I am moving in the right direction for my own growth as a practitioner and as a human. Negotiations that fail to stay within the paradigm are lessons to be learned from. But the deeper questions of the negotiation stay with me always: am I being open, am I present? What is the filter through which I am hearing this individual? Am I judging the action, or am I hearing the experience? Am I judging the individual, or am I holding a space for this individual to grow? Am I contributing to the balance of equality among all the participants? Is it necessary that I speak here? These are lessons that go with me daily through my life, and form a springboard for my personal spiritual practice.
HOW TO MANAGE THE MADNESS OF MOVING AFTER DIVORCE
-WHAT STEPS TO TAKE TO REDUCE STRESS ON CHILDREN–
(HARTFORD, CT)- March 28, 2013– Disruption in routine and residence are two changes that come with any divorce. For children of divorcing parents this shift in schedule can be especially stressful if not managed properly. Connecticut Collaborative Divorce Group (CCDG) is a resource available to guide families through such transitions. CCDG is comprised of attorneys, financial and mental health professionals to facilitate an amicable termination of a marriage.
In a traditional case, the Court may be asked to decide what is in the children’s best interests. In a collaborative case, all parties meet and work out an agreement that is truly in the children’s best interests.
“When it comes to moves, it is very important that both parents be on the same page when relocating children,” said Attorney Robert Fried. “I usually recommend moves that minimize the disruption for children.“
Attorneys and psychologists alike recommend moving during a long holiday break such as summer. It allows for an easier transition and time to meet new friends in the neighborhood.
If you can’t wait until summer or other big break, it is helpful to try to do as much planning as possible. Include the kids in some decision making about how the move might go. For example, do they want to have a friend help them unpack their room or pick out some accessories? Do they want to stay with a friend during the day you actually move out of the old home? Getting them involved in re-doing their bedroom is often very helpful. It is important for parents to stress the positives about the move, whenever possible.
“It is generally a good idea to have the children out of the house if one parent is moving out first. It is really upsetting for children to see a parent moving out,” advises Psychologist Dr. Elaine Ducharme. “The good thing about collaborative divorce is that parents work together in the best interests of their children.”
CHOOSING A SCHOOL DISTRICT
Often during divorce one parent may move to another school district, thus forcing the need to make a decision about the children’s future. The quality of a school district is one of the issues in determining the children’s best interests but that issue must be considered along with the impact on the children, which include their activities and friends.
“For instance, does a child have special needs that are, or are not being met in the present school system,” said Attorney Fried. “Collaboration, not litigation, is the best way to deal with these sensitive issues.”
Moving to a new school district can be tough for many children. Therefore, it is really helpful to go to the school ahead of time for a tour and to meet the principal, teacher, counselor whenever possible. They can be instrumental in pairing your child up with a “buddy”.
“Most children, especially, the younger ones, do well once they have a friend. Middle school and high school can be more difficult because of the cliques that form,” said Dr. Ducharme. “Moving to a new school is easier at a time when everyone will be new to the school, such as the beginning of middle school or high school.”
In collaborative divorce, most couples work really hard to keep things as stable as possible for children. It is not about who gets to choose, but how the parents can solve this issue together. Even if they are divorced, they will always be parents together. The coach, in a collaborative divorce situation, helps parents work on solving problems together in the best interest of their children. After the divorce is final, parents can still return to the coach or another parenting specialist to make sure they can continue to parent together.
WHEN IS THERAPY NECESSARY?
Every family is different and the needs of a particular child may differ; even children in the same family. The collaborative process is more attuned and better able to deal with these issues, discuss them in group conferences with the attorneys and other professionals such as a “coach” who is trained to work with families in distress and help them move forward with less disruption than a traditional divorce.
“Therapy is necessary only if the child continues to struggle after several months,” adds Dr. Ducharme. “Kids are typically quite resilient, but it’s important that parents pay close attention to prolonged struggles their kids encounter.”
CCDG is a group of experienced divorce professionals, including divorce and family lawyers, financial and mental health professionals who have been specifically trained in the collaborative process. Each member of the group has made a commitment to the goals of collaborative practice in order to help people achieve fair and lasting settlements without using the court or even the threat of court. Additionally, each member attends regular meetings and training sessions designed to develop and enhance their collaborative divorce skills. For more information visit: www.ctcollabrorativedivorce.com.
HOW TO HELP COLLEGE KIDS COPE WITH DIVORCING PARENTS
–IMPACT OF EMPTY NEST DIVORCE DYNAMIC–
(HARTFORD, CT)- September 30, 2013– When there are problems in a marriage, children are often the glue that holds couples together. However, increasingly once the kids fly the coop, their parents undergo some life changes of their own, taking a closer look at divorce.
In fact, there is a growing trend of empty nesters going their separate ways. According to a March 2012 paper, “The Gray Divorce Revolution,” by researchers at Bowling Green State University in Bowling Green, Ohio, in 1990, fewer than 1 in 10 individuals who divorced were 50 or older. Almost 20 years later, that number jumped to more than 1 in 4. In 2009, more than 600,000 people ages 50 and over got divorced, reported the Wall Street Journal in July 2013.
Connecticut Collaborative Divorce Group (CCDG) is an organization that can serve as a guide through the divorce process for the entire family. CCDG is comprised of attorneys, financial and mental health professionals, who can help facilitate a divorce that minimizes financial, emotional trauma.
Many college-age children can still be traumatized by divorce, especially if parents are involved in nasty litigation. As a result of divorce, the collegiate may have to secure more student loans or even change educational plans. The stable home environment, so necessary for college-aged children, is gone. Where do they go for the Holidays; where are their bedrooms; where is their security as the divorce plays out?
“Some college students, as a result of the lack of stability at home just choose to disengage from the family as much as possible,” said Clinical Psychologist, Dr. Elaine Ducharme. “They go elsewhere for school breaks and/or become more involved with a boyfriend or girlfriend rather than their own family.”
Collaborative divorce allows parents to discuss what is really important for children and their various needs, including college. The key is to minimize the effect of children being caught in the middle of parent’s arguments and disagreements about issues such as college tuition.
On the flip side, sometimes divorce can be a relief to kids who have spent a lifetime enduring bitterness and battling. During the process it is essential not to confide in your child as a friend, even if the child is an adult.
“Let them be children and support them to the best of your ability. Help them understand that you know they may feel torn and you will not resent time spent with the other parent,” said Dr. Ducharme. “College kids can’t be court ordered to see parents as part of a custody plan. When kids see parents cooperating in a collaborative divorce process, they are far more likely to be able to maintain a good relationship with both parents.”
From a financial perspective, when divorcing older in life, pensions, 401k’s and other retirement accounts must be reviewed. For example, if one of the spouses “the participant spouse” has been employed by a government entity or corporation and has a substantial pension benefit, and the other spouse “the non- participant spouse” does not have substantial retirement assets, it is probable that an equitable portion of the pension benefit will be assigned to the other spouse. These assignments are made by Court orders usually referred to Qualified Domestic Relations Order (QDRO) or Domestic Relations Order (DRO).
“Many spouses now participate in defined contribution accounts such as 401ks and Traditional and Roth Individual Retirement Accounts (IRA’s),” said Attorney Pat Farrell. “These accounts can also be allocated between the parties. Careful consideration must be given to the tax ramifications and penalty provisions of these accounts. The spouse
should be fully informed of these issues prior to a settlement agreement or court order.”
Alimony, also referred to as spousal support is another issue to be negotiated. The Court must consider a number of statutory criteria in determining how much alimony is equitable and in determining the length of alimony. These criteria include the length of marriage, the incomes of the parties as well as earning capacity, the source of the acquisition of marital assets; the ability to acquire assets in the future, the health of the parties, the ages of the parties and if substantially different how that impacts on future earnings, how many more years and the causes for the breakdown of the marriage.
“The Court has the discretion to weigh these considerations as the Court deems appropriate in making decisions regarding alimony and allocation of assets,” said Attorney Farrell. “Social Security is controlled by federal law. A spouse has a right to claim on a prior spouse’s social security earnings record if the parties were married for more than ten years.”
Under the present law in Connecticut, child support is paid until a child turns age 18, or graduates from high school, whichever event is later, but in no event later than a child’s 19th birthday. The law does provide for Post- Secondary Education Support, which addresses college expenses. Should an order be made now to decide how college will be paid? Or with younger children, the Court often retains jurisdiction to enter college orders in the years immediately before attending college, at which time there is more information about the children’s college preferences and costs, as well as the parents’ respective ability to pay.
Perhaps most important when children are concerned is the adjustment to life after divorce and maintaining an amicable relationship for all parties involved.
“It is far better if you take responsibility for your own “stuff” and not throw a lot of blame at your partner,” adds Dr. Ducharme. “This is yet another reason why collaborative divorce is an option well worth exploring.”
CCDG is a group of experienced divorce professionals, including divorce and family lawyers, financial and mental health professionals who have been specifically trained in the collaborative process. Each member of the group has made a commitment to the goals of collaborative practice in order to help people achieve fair and lasting settlements without using the court or even the threat of court. Additionally, each member attends regular meetings and training sessions designed to develop and enhance their collaborative divorce skills. For more information visit: www.ctcollaborativedivorce.com.
COLLABORATIVE DIVORCE UNITES RATHER THAN DIVIDES
–ALTERNATIVE APPROACH TO DIVORCE HELPS ALIGN PROFESSIONALS OF VARIOUS DISCIPLINES-
(HARTFORD, CT)- June 13, 2013- When many people think about the professionals managing divorce, they only envision attorneys. Presently though, some of the most amicable divorces are achieved through an approach known as collaborative divorce. It reduces stress for the individuals separating by surrounding them with a support system including attorneys, mental health and financial professionals.
“Traditional divorce is adversarial”, said Attorney Jule Crawford. “So often, this often leads to bitter court battles where each side wants to win no matter the cost.”
Attorney Crawford is a member of Connecticut Collaborative Divorce Group (CCDG). She says that collaborative divorce humanized her practice by taking the demon out of divorce. The collaborative approach sets up a method for the two divorcing people to start a dialogue, not about who did what wrong that killed the marriage, but to map out the changes that the divorce will necessitate.
Attorney Crawford’s collaborative group is multidisciplinary. Members are trained and experienced in finance, law or mental health. As a result, she can offer clients a team of neutrals professionally trained in their field to help them make good parenting and financial decisions, while she and the other lawyer can guide them through the legal process.
“I have been amazed over and over again that grown adults feel they lose all control over their own lives when they enter into a traditional divorce,” she said. “I think the collaborative process is all about giving people the tools and guidance they need to be active problem solvers to craft their agreement in a way that best suits themselves, each other, and their children.”
Dr. Abby Cole offers a mental health perspective. As a divorce coach, collaborative divorce has pretty much become a second career, eclipsing her psychotherapy practice. It allows Dr. Cole the pleasure of working more interactively with colleagues, and the satisfaction of offering what she considers to be preventative mental health interventions.
“Instead of spending years in psychotherapy cleaning up the detritus of messy divorces, I am able to educate and guide clients towards behaving in more decent and respectable ways,” she said. “They don’t have to spend years hating ex-spouses, but instead, are able to craft workable solutions for their families.”
Financial Advisor Jim Russell sees the same benefits. Originally when he started working in the divorce field, he was involved through the litigation model. He spent half his time preparing multiple requests for information, reviewing what information was missing, preparing and attending depositions and testifying in cases. Many times because the cases were so adversarial his participation would not be productive as it could be.
Parties choosing collaborative divorce avoid the need for depositions and going to court for contested hearings. In addition, the parties voluntarily exchange requested documents and avoid motions and court appearances to obtain those documents.
“In spending my time in the right areas and looking at various options that can be brainstormed in a group setting, we often get to a better answer that is satisfactory to the clients,” said Russell. “By focusing my time on working on the real issues with the clients it typically improves their understanding of the issues and a better resolution of the matters occurs for the clients.”
Regardless of their differing backgrounds, all of the professionals involved in collaborative divorce agree that the process yields the best results.
“I have had a number of collaborative clients compliment each other and say things like “she is a great mom”, “ he really was the driving force in building the company we now own together,” said Jim Russell.
“Last Christmas I had one recently divorced wife who hosted her former husband for the holiday festivities,” said Dr. Cole. “Other families are celebrating dance recitals and graduations together, focusing on the accomplishments of their children rather than reviving the resentments of their divorces.”
“Without doubt, resolving divorces collaboratively is hard work done in trying times with people at their most fragile. But there is nothing more rewarding in my eyes than to help a client end a marriage with dignity,” said Attorney Crawford.
CCDG is a group of experienced divorce professionals, including divorce and family lawyers, financial and mental health professionals who have been specifically trained in the collaborative process. Each member of the group has made a commitment to the goals of collaborative practice in order to help people achieve fair and lasting settlements without using the court or even the threat of court. Additionally, each member attends regular meetings and training sessions designed to develop and enhance their collaborative divorce skills. For more information visit: www.ctcollabrorativedivorce.com