As an attorney focusing on cooperative divorce I find that I have to customize the process depending on the individual couple. Some couples want as little involvement in the legal process as possible while some couples want to be more pro-active and actively apply project management techniques to the process. They want some degree of control over the process but recognize the need to delegate and to seek legal and financial advice. It may be helpful for this project manager type to consider the following:
NOTE: These guidelines apply to Washington State divorces only. All states are different. Consult with an attorney in your state.
Consider alternatives to traditional divorce litigation
Couples involved in the litigation process generally completely give up control of the process and are bound by court schedules, procedural issues, formal discovery processes and the litigating attorney’s processes. If a couple agrees to cooperate on the divorce they can explore various alternatives that will keep them out of court and allow them to maintain control.
Line up your professional team
In some cases, couples are able to engage in rational discussions and have general agreement on most issues. Often these couples believe they can simply get the forms on line and process their own divorce. The first thing they find is that the forms are voluminous, confusing and most of all – very intrusive. An experienced family law attorney can save the couple considerable frustration, time and help them preserve their privacy. It is important also to engage an attorney to assist in the timing of various filings.
The couple should determine if they each need an advocate to represent their interest or if each feels strong enough to advocate for herself/himself. Each can have separate representation and still have a non-adversarial divorce. A process called “Collaborative Law” had been developed by a group of legal professionals for this very purpose. In collaborative law the couple and their respective attorneys sign an agreement that they will not engage in litigation.
After the legal team has been assembled, the couple will want to engage additional professionals. If one of the parties owns a business, they will want to have an appraisal of that business. Again, the couple can agree on one business appraiser with the instruction to provide a neutral, unbiased report. Mortgage advisors, real estate agents, financial planners and tax professionals may be part of the financial team.
Mental health professionals can serve a valuable purpose on the team. A parenting specialist can help the couple with helping their children adjust to the process and offer guidance as to individualized parenting plans. Sometimes the couple will want to engage a mental health professional to help them communicate in a more positive manner.
Determine the issues
A divorce resolution usually resolves around a key set of issues. Some will be more difficult than others. Some issues will be emotional and some can be resolved in pragmatic, non-emotional solutions. The former are generally parenting plans and the latter involve property settlement. Child support and spousal maintenance can present a little of both. Making a list of issues without offering immediate solutions will help the couple prioritize the issues. Also to be addresses would be placing a value on various assets – home and business appraisals, pension plan and retirement account assessments.
The only timeline imposed by the state is that a couple must wait 90 days between filing a divorce and obtaining a decree. The rest is up to the couple. It may be wise to not file any legal papers until refinance or loans have been completed. Sometimes medical insurance may be an issue. Some couples complete everything in less than a month and then merely wait for the 90 day period. More likely, it will take several months to complete all the negotiations and agreements. Timelines help set goals for accomplishing certain processes to keep everyone on track. Most couples like to start the 90 day clock by filing a petition and then work on their settlement agreements but they may have valid reasons for postponing the filing.
A couple will need to gather information regarding assets and debts. Have they considered pension and retirement accounts? What is the value of the home and what is the mortgage balance. Has all debt been accounted for. Besides value of a business, I have had couples needing an appraisal on collectibles, horses, farm land, classic cars and once a violin. It is necessary to have all the assets and debt on the table in order to obtain an equitable division.
Don’t forget the parenting seminar
Washington State requires all parents to attend a seminar “What about the Children” before a divorce can be completed. It is frustrating to have all agreements completed and the documents executed and find that the decree cannot be entered before the parents attend the seminar. It often takes a few weeks to get a space in the seminar. Early registration is encouraged.
Go to court for the final decree
An attorney can make the final step much more efficient and time saving than an individual appearing on his own. Only one of the parties need to go in front of the judge and family law attorneys can go in without a scheduled court date and usually know the best times and places and how to avoid a long wait. The final hearing is usually over in less than five minutes and waiting time is almost always minimal.
The legal community has recognized the need for non-adversarial divorce, especially for couples who have been married for a longer period of time, and have accumulated a variety of assets including real estate and retirement plans. Today, a group of attorneys are now active in collaborative law, divorce mediation, cooperative divorce and some are even available to help a couple in a so-called “kitchen table” divorce where the couple does most of the negotiations themselves. An on-line search on http://www.respectfuldivorce.org/ , collaborative law sight provides many resources and several resources are also available on my web site http://www.karinquirk.com/.
So, no matter how you decide to manage your divorce process, or what role you wish to play in it, remember that there are choices. By defining your role and responsibilities, much like other project management opportunities, divorce can be a process that is easier navigated than you think.