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A Different Way to Think About Divorce

Traditionally, when one contemplates divorce, the first phone call is to a divorce attorney. And when on thinks about it, that makes sense since by definition, divorce is a legal action. One "party" "serves" another with a legal document. Sometimes it is stated that one party "sues" for divorce. Parties need to complete "financial affidavits." Divorce is finalized via a "decree" or an "agreement" - all legal documents.

However, with the widening acceptance of "alternative dispute resolution" (such as mediation and collaboration) in divorce (and other areas of the practice of law) as opposed to the standard adversarial or litigation model, a different view is emerging.

Along with the growth of mediation and collaboration as alternatives to litigation, has come the increasing use of non-lawyers as part of the divorce process. For example, the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals (IACP) prescribes an inter-disciplinary or multi-disciplinary model to include the use of one or two coaches and a financial professional. The coach(es) are there to help the spouses navigate through the difficult emotional moments. It is the job of the coach to maintain the proper tone, and that includes on the part of the lawyers as well as the clients.

The financial professional acts as a neutral, meaning he/she takes neither side and helps to collect and format all the financial information from the couples. The financial neutral can model proposals and help either spouse, or both, to understand the financial ramifications of whatever is proposed - which brings me to Startling Revelation #1:

There are actually three aspects to a divorce:

  • Legal
  • Emotional
  • Financial

Would it not make sense to have the best talent, namely those who are specifically suited to each aspect to help in this difficult process?

Traditionally, one lawyer has been responsible for collecting his/her client's financial information, assembling it, helping to prepare the financial affidavit etc. In the case of the financial professional, he/she can do all of that for both clients, assemble data, question discrepancies, and prepare objective - he/she is both neutral and objective - reports for dissemination to both parties and their lawyers. Since the neutral can work with both parties simultaneously, this entire function can, and usually is, performed with greater time efficiency and, therefore, at much lower cost.

A neutral coach can meet with both spouses, discuss any outstanding issues, like drug abuse, infidelity and any other trigger-point issues and also work with the couple to formulate an acceptable parenting plan.

Obviously, the legal aspects, as always, are best left to the lawyers - which brings me to Startling Revelation #2:

Who says the portal to divorce has to be through the lawyer's door?

Invariably, there are emotional issues leading to the ultimate decision to separate. And as we know, there are a number of different divorce models: the traditional, standard litigation model, mediation, collaboration, and even "pro se", which is when the spouses do it all themselves with no professionals involved at all. When the disaffected spouse picks up the phone to make that call, the lawyer who is on the other end of that phone has already determined the process to be utilized. It is only by chance or careful research that the inquiring spouse will pick an attorney who is well versed in all models and who will be objective in guiding that individual and/or couple towards the optimal model for them.

The mental health professional, on the other hand, maybe in a better position to guide the individual/couple. First, the mental health professional (MHP) is not married to any particular model, unlike most attorneys. Second, the MHP is best qualified to assess the mental/emotional status of the couple and determine if the couple is capable of a mediated divorce or if one or the other really needs a strong advocate. Perhaps, then, the MHP would be the best portal.

Sometimes, child custody and parenting plans are not relevant, like in the case of older spouses whose children are already adults, and the primary issues are basically financial. Why not call the specially trained financial professional to begin the process?

According to guidelines established by the IACP and generally adopted by interdisciplinary divorce practice groups across the country, both MHPs and financial professionals who choose to work in divorce have extensive specialized training who qualifies them to work in this area.

Generally speaking, both professionals are required to have a minimum of 40 hours of mediation training and a minimum of 12 hours of collaborative divorce training along with minimum requirements pertaining to their own professions. Both professionals are familiar with divorce processes and procedures. And both professionals have devoted time and energy to this difficult work.

For an individual seeking advice about divorce, it would not be a mistake to call either the specially trained mental health professional or financial professional even before calling an attorney. And while this professional will always refer to and defer to the attorney, we feel that we - my mental health colleagues and financial colleagues - are an appropriate place to start.

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