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Is Collaborative Divorce Best for You?

How to avoid the family law courts in New York

When a new client met with family law litigator Mudita Chawla a while back, the woman was adamant about one thing: that she and her divorcing husband stay out of court and salvage the friendship they’d had since they were kids. “At the end of the day,” says Chawla, “they figured out a way for the husband to get a refinance on the apartment to get her name off the deed and the mortgage. And she kept her [bank] account, he kept his account, and we divided the assets in the joint account.”

The entire process took about 2 ½ months. “It was the fastest I’ve ever had a case settle,” says Chawla, who practices at Chemtob Moss Forman & Beyda.

For couples willing to work together with a group of professionals—including their own attorneys and often a divorce coach, child specialist or financial expert—collaborative divorce can be a good option. A form of alternative dispute resolution, it differs from mediation, which is led by a single neutral professional. 

The greatest benefit is that it keeps you out of court. “Especially for parties who have children, if you’re able to resolve the case in a collaborative process and stay amicable, that can really help you in your relationship down the road to be able to co-parent in a way that doesn’t have such animosity to it,” says Elysa Greenblatt, a family law attorney in Manhattan.

Avoiding the courtroom also gives you and your ex more control over details that can cause friction. If a judge mandates that Mom makes all the medical decisions and Dad has the last word on extracurricular activities, what happens if your child needs to go to the doctor at the same time as soccer practice? Only you and your spouse can predict such conflicts.

If collaborative divorce sounds like a good fit, you’ll each want to find a lawyer with experience in this area. Consider asking friends or colleagues for recommendations before scheduling separate consultations. Expect to pay for about an hour of your attorney’s time to get acquainted.

Joint meetings usually last between one and two hours. You and your spouse will first sign a “no court” agreement, which prohibits you from threatening each other with litigation even if things heat up.

During the process, be prepared to exchange net worth statements, hammer out child custody and visitation details, and decide who’s going to pay for add-on expenses and child support. Ultimately, one of the attorneys submits the uncontested divorce to the court; in New York, neither you nor your spouse has to be present when it’s finalized.

Greenblatt recalls how an older husband and wife benefited from a financial professional explaining the long-term consequences for both the spouse paying support and the one receiving it. “Everyone being able to sit together in a room and go over the numbers together and talk through the worries of the person who hadn’t been working, who was going to need to be supported, worked really well.”

When does collaborative divorce not make sense? When one spouse is a victim of physical, emotional or financial abuse, or if one spouse doesn’t have access to the couple’s accounts. “If one party thinks the other party is hiding money or assets, you’re just not going to trust that the other side is being honest about what there is to divide,” Chawla adds.

Even under the best of circumstances, collaborative divorce isn’t necessarily cheaper than the knock-down-drag-out kind. Bringing in other professionals can ratchet up the cost, so make sure you can afford the fees. And the process can take a while. If, for instance, one spouse owns a business, the valuation could last months. “Sometimes people think that the collaborative process happens really quickly, that you get into a room and you all come out two hours later with an agreement,” says Chawla. “It just doesn’t work that way.”

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