Collaborative divorce avoids going to court to settle differences

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When Derek Smith and his now ex-wife, Jessica, were planning the terms of their divorce, they kept getting stuck on what seemed like a small detail, but one that was important to both of them: Thanksgiving.

"Thanksgiving is one of her family's big holidays, and there was a feeling on her part that it should be her holiday with the kids," Mr. Smith explained. Since her family is in Pennsylvania, but his is not, Mr. Smith said he wasn't happy with the idea of entirely ceding Thanksgiving with the couple's two children.

So the Smiths decided to try the collaborative approach to their divorce, using lawyers trained in the practice to reach a mutually beneficial outcome without litigation.

"When your lawyer is writing letters to her lawyer, saying, 'My client wants this,' and waiting for a response, that kind of thing can take months and months," Mr. Smith said. He and his ex-wife wanted to avoid ending up in a courtroom "over what seemed like such a small thing."

Collaborative divorce, the brainchild of Minnesota divorce lawyer Stuart G. Webb, has been in use since 1990. According to the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals (IACP), Mr. Webb was motivated to start the collaborative practice by an especially ugly divorce case.

But collaborative divorce is a relatively new concept in the Pittsburgh area, lawyer Susan DiGirolamo said. She is part of the Collaborative Lawyers of Southwestern Pennsylvania (CLASP), and said the idea has only caught on here in the past five or six years. "It used to be something we'd have on the agenda, to offer as an option to clients, but now we have people seeking it out," Ms. DiGirolamo said.

When parties enter into a collaborative arrangement, they sign an agreement saying they won't go to court.

"It requires parties to be upfront, to exchange information and work together," said Laura Cohen, owner of Family Legal Center in Monroeville. She said the success of the arrangement depends almost entirely on the parties' willingness to cooperate.

"People who do participate generally seem to get along better after the divorce for a longer period of time," Ms. Cohen said.

And collaborative arrangements can extend beyond just the terms of the divorce; the process can be applied to custody arrangements and financial negotiations if a business or other assets are involved.

Paula Hopkins, a Downtown attorney trained in the practice, said even in the short time it has been in use in the Pittsburgh area, collaborative divorce has evolved. "It used to be an attorney-driven process, with two spouses each with their attorneys, and four of us sitting down," Ms. Hopkins said.

But now it's a much more interdisciplinary approach, she said, which can include mental health professionals, tax and business consultants and a coach, all trained in the collaborative process.

Ms. Hopkins said her firm sees an 85 percent to 90 percent success rate when clients take the collaborative approach to divorce.

An IACP survey from 2010 asked collaborative divorce clients to rate their experiences, finding that 90 percent of the cases ended up being settled through the collaborative process, and 75 percent would recommend it. Eighty-three percent of the clients had children, and more than half had estates valued over $500,000, the survey found.

Part of the appeal is the level of control it gives to the involved parties, Ms. Hopkins said. "The first meeting we have, we sit down and each person talks about why they chose the process," she said. "We give clients a clear picture of what to expect, and we try to avoid using legalese and speak in plain English."

Renee Vandall of Mount Washington said her impression of what divorce could be -- a costly, acrimonious process -- motivated her to explore the collaborative approach. "For me, my absolute number one concern was my son," she said. "I wanted to dissolve the marriage with as much kindness and dignity as possible."

Ms. Vandall said her collaborative divorce included attorneys walking each party through the process, making sure everyone was on the same page and outlining goals.

"I didn't feel, and I don't believe he did, either, that we were ever pitted against each other," she said. "I don't know if we would have been able to say that if we had gone through litigation."

She added that collaborating differs from mediation, where a neutral third party makes decisions for both parties. "That's great, if you both have a full understanding of the situation and can negotiate for yourselves," she said.

But with collaborative divorce, Ms. Vandall said, the parties' input and the guidance of their attorneys allow everyone to feel as if they're being heard.

Of the roughly 8,000 attorneys in Allegheny County, the Family Legal Center's Ms. Cohen said, only about 50 or so are trained in the collaborative process. But she has been pleased with the increase in business her firm has seen as a result.

Mr. Smith, a certified public accountant with Green Tree-based firm of Markovitz Dugan and Associates, was so impressed with the collaborative process that he's now a licensed financial adviser for collaborative practice.

"When there's a business involved in a divorce, each party will hire their own accountant and then the fight comes over whose numbers are right," he explained. When using an accountant in a collaborative environment, it takes that back-and-forth out of the equation.

"I really believe in the collaborative process," Mr. Smith said. "It takes the emotion out of it, and lets everyone think clearly and professionally."

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Kim Lyons: or 412-263-1241.


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