Collaborative divorce keeps couples out of the courtroom. What you should know.

China, the first country to quarantine residents due to the coronavirus, is now seeing record high divorce filings, according to media reports. Legal observers and mental health practitioners in the United States are expecting an uptick in divorces here as well. 

Even in pre-pandemic life, divorce filings typically spike after the summer and holidays when couples are together for longer periods of time and spending more on vacations and gift giving.

Now, couples are together in one house or apartment for months on end working at home. May have kids stuck in the house as well. Add job loss and feelings of mortality to the picture and more factors that lead to divorce come into play.

As couples end marriages, a growing number of them will opt for collaborative divorces, which started gaining popularity about 10 years ago.

“It used to be something we had to educate clients on, but now we have a lot of clients coming in and asking about collaborative divorce,” said Raleigh “Lee” Greene, of Greene & Greene Attorneys in St. Petersburg, FL. He and his son, Billy Greene, focus much of their practice on collaborative divorce.

“Divorce litigation, depending on the attorney you hire, tends to get heated. There are going to be things that aren’t well received by the other side,” Billy Greene said. “The collaborative approach does a great job of calming everyone down before those initial grenades are thrown.”

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The goal of a collaborative divorce is to stay out of court. A final agreement is filed with the court, but the details are determined through face-to-face meetings involving the spouses, their lawyers and other members of the “team,” such as an accountant and mental health counselor. If both parties can’t agree on a settlement, then it has to go to court and the attorneys can no longer represent their clients. Therefore, lawyers aren’t encouraging clients to go for blood.

“It keeps lawyers from frustrating the process,’’ Billy Greene said. “Those that tend to cause problems rather than solve them aren’t in this process.”

Costs and benefits of the team approach 

There are other players trying to keep the process reasonable and amicable.

“A true collaborative divorce with what I call all the bells and whistles will often have a financial neutral, child specialists, a divorce coach for mom and a divorce coach for dad and occasionally more specialists if needed,” said Mark Riopel, an attorney with Hamilton, Stephens, Steele & Martin in Charlotte, NC.

This many people, however, are often not needed, he added.

Either way, collaborative divorces almost always play out much faster than litigating back and forth in court.

“The average collaborative case usually takes somewhere between three to six meetings,” Billy Greene said. “We have cases that get resolved in the second meeting. And we have cases that go past the six-month mark.”

 His firm typically schedules a meeting each month. Reaching an agreement more quickly out of court, of course, saves on attorneys’ billable hours.

“The cost of going to court will always outpace a collaborative divorce,” Riopel said. “You are going to be spreading the money around to more people, but you are undoubtedly saving money.’’

Avoiding court can lessen acrimony

Just as people will say things on social media they wouldn’t say to someone’s face, court filings allow disputing spouses to make accusations and demands they might not make in a face-to-face setting with neutral parties standing by.

“In a collaborative divorce you get the neutrals involved before you reach a point of no return,” Billy Greene said. “Some couples have made such accusations in court filings that there’s no way they can get past them.”

Along with hurt and angry spouses, the children suffer when the gloves come off in a divorce. It’s much harder to co-parent when a mom and dad feel they got railroaded or cheated in court.

“If one parent ends up with 75 percent of physical custody, guess who’s going to be dangling the car keys to try to get (the child) to their house for more than their allotted time,” Riopel said.

How a divorce is settled can affect attitudes years down the road.

“Someday your child is going to be about to walk down the aisle and you don’t want her thinking ‘I hope Mom and Dad aren’t going to be awkward,’’’ he added.

Controlled uncoupling

Even in a collaborative divorce, it’s rare that divorced spouses end up saying the settlement gave them everything they wanted. However, the process offers them more of a feeling of control with real-time give and take to settle sticking points instead of drawn out back and forth court filings. Even in the courtroom, people looking forward to having their day in court often walk away frustrated.

“People say they want to go to court because they want to be heard. They don’t realize you can only speak when spoken to and you can only answer certain questions certain ways,” Riopel said. “The judge may or may not be listening. The judge may or may not believe you.’’

Greene offered an example of how disputing spouses each get their say in a collaborative divorce. Say a new school for the children comes into play because the family home is being sold. Each parent is asked to research options then they are presented and discussed. Only one school can be chosen, but at least each party made their case.

Candidates for collaborative

Most parties would say they want what’s fair and best for their children. But that doesn’t mean a collaborative divorce is for everyone.

“Everyone has to cooperate. If one side refused to give documents, you have no quality to file a motion to get them,” Billy Greene said. Because he spells this out clearly to potential clients, his firm has a 90 percent success rate with collaborative divorces staying out of court.

“There’s a premium on openness, honesty and fair dealing. … If a person says ‘I don’t trust my spouse and I’m going to fight tooth and nail over everything.’ I thank them for coming in and I give them some names of litigation attorneys,” said Riopel, who does only mediation and collaborative divorces.

The mediation process has been around longer than collaborative divorce. Spouses each have an attorney and go through a mediator to determine a settlement.

Many states also offer simplified divorce or simplified dissolutions. This is an option for couples that have less than around $50,000 in assets and no children. There is less paperwork and lower filing fees, though other guidelines couples must meet. 

Contact Katherine Snow Smith at Katherine@legalexaminer.com. Follow her on Twitter at @snowsmith.