Assembly of the Collaborative Divorce Team
The Collaborative Divorce process is initiated by the assembly of a team of professionals who are all dedicated to achieving an amicable resolution of the divorce without going to court. In addition to the attorneys, the team includes four other professionals. Each spouse has his/her own mental health professional who functions as a “divorce coach,” assisting the spouses to deal with the emotional issues in the case. There is also a “child specialist,” a mental health professional who focuses on the needs of the children. The final member of the team is a financial specialist who assists the spouse in creating household budgets and dividing the marital property.
The attorneys and divorce coaches work out their respective fee arrangements with the spouse who has retained them. The fees for the child specialist and financial expert are determined jointly between the team member and the spouses.
Once the team has been assembled, a “four-way meeting” between the clients and the lawyers is usually scheduled. Several things are accomplished at this meeting, which is usually attended by the spouses and the attorneys.
Collaborative Practice Agreement and Statement of Understanding
Prior to the meeting one of the Collaborative Divorce attorneys will have prepared a Collaborative Practice Agreement and Statement of Understanding. These are formal agreements, which are signed by the spouses and their attorneys, and which outline the terms and conditions of the collaborative divorce process. In particular, the Collaborative Practice Agreement and Statement of Understanding provide that if the collaborative process breaks down, all of the professionals – the attorneys, mental health professionals, financial experts, and any mutually retained expert witnesses – will have to withdraw from the case. The documents discuss the general concepts and principles that serve as the foundation of the collaborative process, including the goals of the collaborative process and the spouses’ mutual commitment to settling their case without court intervention. The Collaborative Statement of Understanding is signed by both spouses and all of the collaborative team members.
Setting the Agenda
Once the Collaborative Practice Agreement and Statement of Understanding have been signed, the team then engages in a general discussion of how this particular collaboration will be handled. No two divorces are the same and so each divorce requires specialized procedures and approaches. For example, where the most pressing issues concern the care of the children, the initial focus of the team might be on addressing those issues with the coaches and the child specialist. On the other hand, where the low-income spouse requires support from the high earning spouse, the first step might be to have them meet with the financial neutral.
Addressing Urgent Problems
It is not uncommon for there to be problems and issues that need to be addressed immediately. For example, there may be a need to establish how much child support will be paid by the non-custodial parent. Or, one parent may be concerned that the other parent is going to take their child outside the state of Georgia. These are the kinds of issues that need to be addressed immediately. At the initial meeting the team will talk about any issues such as these and set out any agreements in writing.
Conclusion of the Initial Meeting
At the end of the initial meeting, two primary things are done. First, where documents and information are required from one or both of the spouses, a list of who will produce which information and documents is composed. The team will then decide when the next meeting will take place, where it will be held and which team members will attend it.
The entire team does not meet at all of the meetings; which team members attend depends upon what is going to be discussed. For example, if the purpose of the meeting will be to talk about a parenting plan for the children, the meeting will usually be limited to the parents, their respective divorce coaches and the child specialist.
Communication between Team Members
Not all of the work of a collaborative divorce takes place at team meetings. Between the meetings two or more of the team members will often communicate about the case, either by email, telephone conference calls or mail. During these conversations the team members will check with each other to find out how their respective clients are doing in the collaborative process and the general progression of the case. As additional facts and information are assembled the team members will discuss settlement options for the issues that exist in the case.
It is often necessary for the team to retain an expert to render an opinion concerning specialized issues in the case. For example, where the value of the family residence is relevant, the spouses might jointly retain the services of a qualified real estate appraiser. If there is a family business, it might be necessary to retain the services of an accountant or business appraiser who specializes in the appraisal of businesses in divorce cases. The fees for retained experts are usually paid from marital funds or by one of the spouses, depending upon the spouses’ financial situation.
Final Agreement and Judgment
At the end of the Collaborative Divorce process there will be a long list of issues that have been worked out in the Collaborative Divorce process. At this time, the attorneys will prepare a Settlement Agreement, Parenting Plan, Child Support Worksheets, and Child Support Addendum, as well as any necessary filing documents. These are the same documents prepared at the end of any litigated divorce case. Once the spouses and the other team members agree on the specific language agreement, it is signed by the parties and filed with the court. Once the paperwork is signed by the judge, the spouses’ agreements become binding court orders.
Length of Time for the Process to be Completed
Spouses who are considering whether to proceed with a Collaborative Divorce often want to know how long the Collaborative Divorce process can take. Because of the many variables involved in most divorce cases, it is not possible to give the couple a firm estimate of exactly how long it will take to resolve their case. However, it is the experience of most professionals who practice in this field that the typical Collaborative Divorce case takes between three and eight months to complete. This means, of course, that some cases can be completed in less than three months and some might take more than eight months to complete. It all depends upon how complex the case is. The more issues that need to be addressed, the longer it will take the divorcing couple to arrive upon an agreement. Regardless of how long a particular Collaborative Divorce takes to complete, it will almost always take substantially less time than if the same divorce had been litigated in the courts. Most litigated divorces in Georgia take at least a year to complete, and many take much longer.
Cost of the Collaborative Divorce Process
Just as in the case of the question of how long a Collaborative Divorce case takes to complete, it is not possible to predict how much the Collaborative Divorce process will cost. Every Collaborative Divorce case is unique, and the retained professionals charge on an hourly basis for their services. This means that the ultimate cost depends upon the amount of time the professionals must spend in helping the couple to resolve their differences.
However, in our experience, the overall cost of the typical Collaborative Divorce case is much less than what the couple would pay if their case were litigated.
There are two primary reasons for this difference:
o Although the divorcing couple in a Collaborative Divorce is retaining and paying for a group of professionals, much of the work that attorneys would have done in a typical litigated divorce is primarily handled by one of the other team members, who may not charge as much for his or her time.
o The second reason is that, in a Collaborative Divorce, the spouses are not paying their attorneys and paid experts to litigate the case in court. The cost to a spouse of taking the case all the way to a trial can be extraordinary. The more contentious the case gets, the more court time will be required. Some litigated divorce cases can take years to prepare and weeks to try.