Is Collaborative Divorce Right for Me?

The interest-based process can be cheaper than California courts

Sacramento family law attorney Hal Bartholomew hasn’t taken a litigation-based divorce case in more than 10 years. He’s instead focused heavily on collaborative divorce, an alternative dispute resolution option he began trying in 1998.

“The collaborative process has a lot of long-term benefits to clients,” he says. “It helps the parties do a better job of communicating and educates them on what are the best interests for their children. It reduces the likelihood of increased animosity that occurs in the litigation system. … Too often, with the legal system, I walked out of the court and clients had no idea what just occurred.”

Though each party still retains their own attorney in a collaborative divorce, the process is much different than a litigated one. The main qualifier? “There’s a contract between the clients and attorneys that says, ‘Attorneys, we have hired you solely to help us resolve our differences. And if you fail, you are fired and disqualified from representing us in court or any other procedure,’” says Bartholomew.

While these two components make up the bare minimum requirement for a collaborative divorce Bartholomew’s method involves a team of specialists, too. For starters, each party gets a communications specialist, or divorce coach, to help them through the process. A neutral financial specialist will also get hired.

“Often, one of the parties is not financially knowledgeable,” says Bartholomew. “I've been surprised over the years who the CFO is in a family; sometimes, it's the stay-at-home parent. Now we can bring the other person up, so he or she has the ability to understand financially what's going on and make at least educated choices—rather than being told by a judge or an attorney that this is what they should do.”

The two attorneys will figure out, together, who they think would be a good divorce coach for each party, and then each spouse will interview the potential hire. After the coaches are selected, each coach meets with their client individually, and then a four-way phone call occurs. During the call, the group identifies the problem areas, and assigns a financial specialist.

The last team member is a child specialist, who meets with the children and the parents separately. “It’s simply amazing what these child specialists, in talking to the kids, learn,” Bartholomew says.  

With collaborative divorce, everything happens in face-to-face meetings—there are no “nasty letters”—and the process, generally, takes six months to one year. The meetings themselves last a couple of hours, and Bartholomew has found they’re most effective when spaced out more than two or three weeks apart.

Of course, the process can take longer, if the parties need it to; it’s an interest-based process, not determined by court dates. “It’s based upon their interests, their goals and objectives—not the court system's goals and objectives,” Bartholomew says. “They can do what they think is appropriate. They still learn what the law is, but it's an open discussion. … You identify the problems and you move to the solution stage, as opposed to the courts system, sometimes, you get stuck in the problems.”

As for the cost? While Bartholomew notes that meetings can be expensive, participating spouses don't have to deal with attorneys reviewing the same documents separately or being present while emotional issues are worked out.

He adds: “One of the first presidents of our International Academy of Collaborative Professionals said, ‘Typically, the collaborative is half the cost of a litigated case—if it doesn’t go to trial. If you go to trial, start adding zeros to the right.’”

If you think a collaborative divorce may be right for you, reach out to an experienced attorney—and know that you’re not alone in the thought. “It’s spreading,” Bartholomew says, “because people are saying, ‘There must be a better way to resolve disputes. It took two of us to get into it. Why are we turning it over to two strangers?’

“They won't end up being best friends,” he continues. “That's only in Hollywood. But there have been cases where they've evolved to be good friends, in the sense of dealing with their children and being respectful to each other.”

For more information on this area, see our overviews of family law, divorce, and mediation and collaborative law.

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