A New Normal: Collaborative Divorce During COVID-19
by Mandy Hicks
By ELPO Law Family Law Attorney Rebecca Simpson
Reprint from article in SOKY Happenings: http://www.sokyhappenings.com/2020/06/a-new-normal-collaborative-divorce-during-covid-19/
The uncertainty and stress of COVID-19 has impacted all of us. Life can feel much harder now. We wear masks. We struggle to find toilet paper, hand sanitizer and disinfectant. We wave at friends and neighbors instead of greeting them with hugs and handshakes.
COVID-19 has made life harder for families, too. While family time is typically considered a good thing, mandatory “family time” can cause problems. Children and parents have had to adjust to new methods of learning and to new routines. Some families are managing serious financial stress due to furloughs, employment lay-offs, closed businesses, or investment losses. In reality, the “new normal” is taking a toll on members of every household in some way, and difficult emotions such as disappointment, fear, frustration and loneliness are common during this unprecedented time.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has been difficult for everyone, the stress of being quarantined at home can be exceptionally difficult for families facing divorce. To exacerbate this problem, COVID-19 has resulted in courts being closed for weeks on end for most non-emergent matters facing families. While courts will soon resume non-emergent hearings, substantial delays are still expected for lengthy family hearings – such as a divorce or custody trial.
Fortunately, divorcing families have options other than court hearings to resolve their disputes. In fact, court battles are often not the best way for families to resolve conflict, anyway. Traditional divorce litigation can be a divisive, destructive process for families that are already coming apart. The anger and animosity between parents can impede the communication and cooperation required to raise children during and following the divorce. Due to the public nature of most family court proceedings, the privacy of families before the court is compromised. Also, depending on the complexity of the issues involved, traditional divorce litigation cases can take years. Almost without question, COVID-19 will further delay outcomes through the court process.
Fighting in court is not the only path to resolution. The collaborative divorce process is a voluntary process that allows separating families to work with attorneys, financial professionals, and therapists in a team environment to resolve issues without going to court.
According to local collaborative divorce coach Kim Wilson, MSSW/LCSW, “[t]he courtroom isn’t usually a place people want to be, pandemic or not. The pandemic is stressful, divorce is stressful. If families can collaboratively reach agreement for themselves and their children without court battles, that’s a win.”
Further, unlike traditional litigation divorces, collaborative cases are not delayed by pandemic-related court closings. Wilson notes “[w]e are seeing collaborative cases move forward effectively through Zoom meetings and other electronic communication.”
Jennifer O’Connor, CPA, with Carr, Riggs, and Ingram, is a financial neutral in a pending collaborative divorce case. (The financial neutral is an impartial expert. This person offers a safe, unbiased environment for spouses to speak openly about their financial fears, concerns and ultimate goals.) She agrees with Wilson, noting that the ability of parties to control the pace and outcome of their case “is even more evident as we have dealt with the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Meetings between the collaborative team could quickly be adjusted to alternative methods such as teleconferencing and online meetings allowing discussion to continue moving forward, despite the pandemic. When you are dealing with an issue as emotionally draining as a divorce, the ability to keep moving through it is important.”
HOW DOES COLLABORATIVE DIVORCE WORK?
A collaborative case is resolved through a series of team meetings. The collaborative team is comprised of attorneys, financial professionals and therapists who work together to assist families who voluntarily choose to resolve their legal disputes without going to court. Each client has an independent attorney. Typically, a neutral financial professional and a neutral mental health professional, referred to as a coach, are also part of the collaborative team. When helpful, a second mental health professional serves as a child specialist.
Clients who choose the collaborative process are committed to reaching an agreement that is mutually crafted. At the beginning of the process, both clients and all team members sign a Participation Agreement. Clients and team members agree that litigation will not be the method whereby the case will be resolved. In addition, clients and team members agree to use good faith efforts in all negotiations, and agree to fully disclose all information in a willing and timely manner. If either party abandons the collaborative process and heads to court, the team members are terminated, including the attorneys.
Typically, the collaborative process begins by one or both parties contacting an attorney trained in collaborative practice. At the initial meeting, attorneys need to discuss with clients all available options to resolving existing disputes, including traditional litigation, mediation and the collaborative process so that the client is fully aware of the differences and can make a voluntary and informed decision about whether the collaborative approach is best for the client.
THE “NEW NORMAL” SINCE COVID-19
With Zoom meetings and other technology, collaborative divorce cases have not experienced the same substantial delays that traditional divorce litigation cases have during the pandemic. Considering this, the collaborative process offers a “new normal” for divorcing couples to resolve their disputes without the delays – or the animosity – inherent to most traditional divorce litigation cases.
For questions about collaborative divorce, call Rebecca Simpson at 270-781-6500 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.