Inside Money: Pain-free divorce is possible


You know the statistics about divorce. If you think your relationship is heading for Splitsville, consider a kinder, gentler and absolutely less expensive way to end your marriage. It’s called collaborative divorce.

Rather than hire cutthroat lawyers who will battle to take your soon-to-be-ex for everything he or she has got, collaborative divorce keeps both spouses’ interests at the forefront — a strategy worth considering if you have ever loved your spouse.

There are no statistics to illustrate the growth in collaborative divorce, but the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals, which promotes collaborative legal proceedings, says its membership grows every year.

Anecdotally, more couples are interested, says Jody D’Agostini, a certified financial planner and certified divorce financial analyst who works with the New Jersey Collaborative Law Group.
“Since both parties commit to be mutually respectful and open, collaborative divorce is generally less adversarial,” D’Agostini says.

Traditional litigated divorce pits the parties against each other. Spouses often are angry and confrontational, not willing to compromise, and the process often turns ugly. The collaborative process, by contrast, is designed so the participants work as a team rather than position themselves as mortal enemies.

Both spouses still retain attorneys, but rather than a stereotypical divorce lawyer, these pros are part of a collaborative law group and they’ve been trained in more peaceful negotiating.
All parties — both spouses and the attorneys — sign a participation agreement in which they pledge to try to resolve all separation issues in a non-adversarial manner. If a settlement can’t be reached, both attorneys withdraw from the case. (That’s an added incentive to try to get along. Who wants to get a new lawyer halfway through the process?)

Then you get started with meetings with the spouses and the attorneys to hash out all items that need to be addressed, from property division and home sales to custody and child visitation issues.

Depending on how complicated and drawn out a traditional divorce is, a couple could pay $100,000 or more by the time the papers are signed.

One firm — Boston Law Collaborative — did a study in which it found litigated divorce averaged $77,746, and cases resolved before going to trial averaged $26,830. In contrast, the same study found collaborative cases averaged $19,723. A separate study cited in the Lewis and Clark Law Review found collaborative divorce cost an average of just $8,777.

The cheaper price tag makes sense because there are no depositions and court dates — except for one when the process is finished.

Another reason it’s cheaper? The collaborative process means fewer “experts” are needed to decide property matters.

For example, if a business needs to be valued, a neutral, collaboratively trained business valuation expert would be hired, says Amy Zylman Shimalla, an attorney with Shimalla, Wechsler, Lepp & D’Onofrio in Warren. In traditional divorces, each side would retain its own forensic accountant, adding up to bigger bills. The same process is used for other issues.

“If we have a custody issue, we choose a neutral child specialist to address the issue rather than each party retaining its own custody evaluation expert,” Shimalla says. “If we have financial issues, we choose a neutral financial adviser.”

Cost aside, when you add the time it takes for depositions and court dates, litigated divorces can take years to resolve. Collaborative divorce is much faster and can be settled in as few as two or three meetings if the parties are in agreement.
It’s also more private than litigation.

“It is a confidential process, so (couples) do not have to worry about their case becoming a public record,” says Shimalla.

No divorce is easy, but the non-confrontational blueprint used for collaborative divorce can set up a couple for an amicable post-divorce relationship.

“The collaborative process helps to set the stage for what the ‘new’ family unit will look like,” D’Agostini says. “It can potentially do less damage to the family and particularly the children involved.”

Of course, the collaborative process isn’t right for every couple. If a relationship has had domestic violence, psychological abuse or financial deceit, a traditional divorce is probably the way to go.

One client said to D’Agostini about their collaborative experience: “We didn’t have the best marriage, but we certainly had the best divorce.”

Collaborative Law Resources:
• International Academy of Collaborative Professionals,
• Jersey Shore Collaborative Law Group,
• New Jersey Collaborative Divorce Alliance,
• New Jersey Collaborative Law Group,