As we all know, life has changed globally and may not get back to a state of normalcy for a while to come. The global pandemic, COVID-19 or Coronavirus, has put a strain on every individual across the world and tested even the most stable of interpersonal relationships. Concerns about health, welfare and finances are enough to rock any foundation during the best of times – it’s no wonder that couples who have been experiencing difficulties in their marriages or unions are having a rough time of it. With the traditional court system essentially being closed and only slowly reopening to any non-emergency matters, getting married or divorced during this crisis can be challenging. And, with asking all non-essential workers to stay home, shelter-in-place and work remotely, the process of a traditional litigated divorce becomes inherently more difficult to manage. That is why alternative methods of divorce such as Mediation and Collaborative Divorce make even more sense today as the best way to start and/or continue the process. Through these methods, even during these uncertain and unprecedented times, parties can continue to make progress on a separation or divorce and work through difficult situations they may be encountering, in a meaningful, healthy and safe way.
The traditional Collaborative Model pulls together a team that consists of two attorneys, a financial neutral and a family support specialist. The team works collaboratively with the clients in order to obtain the best solution for the family in a caring and compassionate way, keeping their information confidential and outside of the court system. This unique method allows the spouses to work through their issues in a supportive and structured environment with the assistance of a highly skilled and experienced, specialized team of dedicated professionals. Each professional is tasked with working on their specific area of expertise thereby streamlining the process. While each spouse is represented by an attorney, the key difference is that the attorneys, as well as every member of the team, commits to the process by signing a Participation Agreement. This Agreement states that every member of the team will work together to move the process along with the goal of reaching a resolution. If there is a breakdown in progress, none of the professionals can continue working with either spouse or be called as an expert witness should the case convert to litigation. This restriction is paramount to the level of commitment everyone has in entering the process.
Each spouse retains a Collaborative Attorney who helps identify pertinent issues, explain the law and advocate for their client’s needs, in a non-adversarial, solutions-based way. The two attorneys work together to explore the many options that might work for both parties, keeping an open mind to possibilities that might vary from what the law specifically proscribes. The main focus is to find a solution that will work best for the family currently and in the future, as they reorganize and establish their new normal. The Collaborative Attorney can be particularly effective during the current pandemic crisis because they can facilitate progress unrestricted by court operations and schedules currently scaled back or halted. They can commence new cases, advise their clients, conduct meetings remotely, reach agreements and draft documents for review so that once the courts do reopen at full capacity, they will be ready to submit documents to be finalized by a judge, all accomplished within the confines of social distancing and without leaving home to step inside the courthouse.
The Financial Neutral, usually a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst (CDFA) or a CPA Forensic Accountant, helps the clients sort through their assets and liabilities, identify what each party has individually and what the couple owns jointly, and formulate a workable plan for equitable distribution of these assets. The financial neutral can help clients avoid needless turmoil and create a proactive planning opportunity, a road map of sorts, that gives the couple and each individual a clear picture of what their financial lives will look like post-divorce. Helping the clients understand that 50/50 isn’t always the fair way and is not the definition of “equitable distribution” goes a long way in moving negotiations forward. The CDFA or CPA Forensic Accountant works with the team to explain what assets there are and how they work in the context of setting a financial plan, including tax ramifications in both the short and long-term. Making decisions about the family home, retirement assets and how to be more mindful of income and expense management are among the concerns that the Financial Neutral provides assistance with. In the current environment, the Financial Neutral can assist in gathering electronic documents, as well as hold virtual meetings with one or both of the parties so the process continues to move along in the most efficient, cost-effective and less cumbersome manner.
The Family Support Specialist (FSS) is a psychologist or social worker with expertise in family dynamics, child development, conflict resolution, communication and problem-solving skills, and techniques for assisting with identifying and regulating emotional reactivity. This professional meets with the couple to assess their readiness and ability to engage in the Collaborative Divorce Process. They address the needs and expectations during the initial meeting, as well as the emotional tone and feelings of both members of the couple. Research indicates that over 85% of decisions made during the divorce process are for emotional reasons. With this in mind the FSS participates in meetings to monitor, intercede, clarify, and address activated emotions as they occur. When children are involved, the FSS is the primary professional team member who assists the couple in developing a parenting plan. Meetings can continue to occur with the Family Support Specialist during the pandemic crisis situation remotely to keep things moving towards a successful resolution.
We are living in an unprecedented time and the entire world is trying to adapt and change to our new collective normal. The Collaborative Divorce Process has always provided a non-traditional solution to a couple seeking a divorce, but because the process allows progress to begin and continue without court intervention absent schedule and restrictive boundaries typical of a litigated divorce, it is a truly well suited, practical solution for couples to choose in the current crisis. If you would like to move forward with a separation or divorce through the Collaborative Process you can obtain more information and a list of the collaboratively trained professionals on our team by visiting the Long Island Collaborative Divorce Professionals website (www.licdp.com). Our members will be happy to answer any questions or concerns you might have about the process.