A cooperative spirit on divorce

author  |  kate fratti, bucks county courier times

Husband and I have been married 28 years. Most of them happily. Still, there were lots of days over the course of those nearly three decades when both of us wondered if we should run screaming from this blessed union in opposite directions.

In the end, we agree we'll stick it out. Until death do us part. We survived the kids; how bad could the rest of our years together be?

Not everyone can stay married. There were 1,485 new divorce filings in Bucks County last year. That's 3,000 people involved, not counting the children. It means there's an awful lot of emotional, financial and legal angst swirling around divorce courts.

The pain can be compounded by a legal system that fosters adversarial posturing. They don't call them "opposing counsel" for nothing, says Tim Adams, branch manager of the Princeton Group, Wells Fargo Financial Network. He's based in Lower Makefield.

Adams, 50, also is president of the new Bucks County Collaborative Law Group, a group working to "put a new face on divorce," he says. Not a happy face, just one free of war paint.

A mid-Jersey collaborative is doing the same in Burlington and Mercer counties. That one's headed up by attorney Fran Merritt (609-895-1717). The Bucks and New Jersey teams were mentored by collaborative attorney Linda Piff of Ocean County (LindaPiff.com), who was a forerunner in teaching the model on the East Coast. Divorce is more than the dividing of assets, she preaches. It's about restructuring a family. Her Web site details the philosophy.

Collaborative divorce is a "team" approach to resolving divorce issues - finances, custody - and getting resolutions in writing without going to court. The team includes lawyers, financial counselors and mental health experts. The couple retains control, instead of handing it over to a judge.

Curious? The Bucks County Collaborative Law Group will host a free educational session from 9 to 11 a.m. Saturday at the Hampton Inn, 1000 Stony Hill Road in Lower Makefield. Call 877-860-8190 to register or check out the Web site at buckscountycollaborativelaw.com.

The pitch will go like this: So, OK, the union is over. Life is a shambles. Sure, your partner deserves to suffer (don't they all?) but is tormenting him in your best interest? What do you want your life to look like three to five years from now? Focus on moving on.

The downside of collaborative law? You risk an impasse. And since the lawyers have agreed there'll be no litigation in your case, you'd have to hire new counsel to start over the old way. More time, more money, more aggravation. Seems to me, good motivation for dealing in good faith the first time.

A cooperative spirit sure beats the old way of having to put your hat on the end of a stick and poke it around the corner into a room to measure the mood at the divorce conference table, collaborative attorneys say. About two-thirds of the people who choose a collaborative divorce are 40 to 60 years old. More than half have been married at least 16 years and 80 percent have children, according to the National Institute of Collaborative Practitioners.

"There's an interconnectedness that demands a more personalized solution," Adams says.

Who should not consider collaborating on their split? Those whose marriages are ending because of domestic violence, Adams says. And those so entrenched in hating the other guy and wanting to inflict harm that they can't do without a judge as a referee.

A former social worker with New Jersey's division of youth and family services, Adams stresses that a mental health counselor can help coach parents through explaining the divorce to kids and parent them through the aftermath. The psychology part of the collaboration isn't treatment, but rather about coaching couples around emotional obstacles.

What's the biggest mistake divorcing couples make on the money front? "People don't seek the right advice," Adams says. "They implement some strategy (out of emotion) and then end up handcuffing themselves and sabotaging the future."

And when the marriage is over, all that's left is the future. Best to start living it well.

Kate Fratti knows cooperation helps a lot of things. Why not a divorce?

Bucks County Courier Times Article by Kate Fratti March 3, 2010