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Collaborative Divorce offers new approach
SOCIAL: 'Collaborative Divorce' offers new approach
Oct 13, 2007
by Macklin Reid, Press Staff
Divorce isn't a happy thing. It's not going to be fun. But it doesn't have to he the emotional equivalent of nuclear war.
That's the idea behind "collaborative divorce" — a new approach to an old and difficult situation. There are, there will be, disagreements. But they needn't be fuel for a high-stakes adversarial process built around dueling lawyers, mutual mistrust and recounted hurts.
"If you've gone through a very bitter divorce process, with a full trial, a lot of nasty things get said. If you resolve it in a more agreeable fashion, people tend to be less bitter thereafter," said attorney Bob Opotzner.
It can affect not only the divorce proceedings, but life in the years that follow.
"If you have conflicts and a hearing and he says all the bad things about her, and she says all the bad things about him, those things don't get forgotten," Mr. Opotzner said.
"So when it comes time to be flexible, people tend to not be cooperative — it's human nature."
Ellen Horowitz, a therapist, is another advocate of the collaborative divorce. "The reason I'm attracted to this approach to divorce is I see a lot of kids post- divorce in my practice who are suffering from anxiety or depression," she said.
"And some of their discomfort can be alleviated by simply reducing the tension between parents."
A collaborative divorce, if it really works, can even help the spouses live with less acrimony in the future when the legal battles of the proceeding take shape as everyday working arrangements.
"The parties — who may have issues down the road, who have children involved, visitation issues — set a tone and process for methodologically resolving issues, as opposed to everything becoming a huge fight," Mr. Opotzner said.
The aftermath of a nasty divorce is hard for the spouse to get past, and it's very difficult for that not to have an effect on the kids.
"This happens even with the brightest most sensitive caring parents," Dr. Horowitz said. "When there are little subtleties of how they handle transitions of their kids, like dropping the kids off at the other parent's house without being willing to go in and say hello, or like saying to the kids 'Tell your mother such-and-such' because they don't want to communicate directly — it puts an unfair burden on the kids, and it's totally unintentional."
Mr. Opotzner and D. Horowitz are part of a group of five local professionals from the fields that do a lot of work in divorce cases who are conducting a free open seminar on "collaborative divorce."
The informational seminar will be next Wednesday evening, Oct., 17, from 7 to 9 p.m. in the Ridgefield Public Library's Dayton program room.
The sponsoring professionals are two attorneys, Mr. Opotzner and Jill O'Connor; two therapists, Dr. Horowitz and Rita DeBruyne; and certified financial professional Michele Blanchard.
The basic concept is that ending a marriage will likely take less of a toll emotionally, psychologically and financially on everyone involved — both spouses, and especially the kids — if things can be resolved without people resorting to "scorched earth" behavior.
Mr. Opotzner describes "collaborative divorce" as a new approach that's a step somewhere between the even more cooperative model of mediation, and a full-blown adversarial divorce battle.
"Under the standard, traditional divorce, the lawsuit gets filed, two lawyers get hired, therapists get hired if there are children issues, or if the parents need assistance, and a financial expert might also be involved. But the process tends to be adversarial," he said.
Mistrust, emotional blackmail, grandstanding, it all has a price. And that will be paid by the parties involved — the spouses and kids — in both emotions and dollars.
"How the parties interact and how the lawyers interact can have a large impact on how fast the divorce gets done, how efficient it's done, and the costs," Mr. Opotzner said.
There's no guarantee, but the collaborative approach is likely to cost less, leaving more assets to be divided between the separating spouses and their children.
"it may not necessarily, ultimately cost less money — may not, but chances are, it will," Mr. Opotzner said. "But the goal is minimizing the adversarial nature of the divorce process."
Even in divorces that are eventually "settled" - they don't go all the way through a trial - there can be a lot of unnecessary and destructive battling.
"Roughly 90% of all cases settle, but there still is a lot of adversarial activity," Mr. Opotzner said.
"The goal of collaborative law is to minimize the adversarial activity. It doesn't mean minimizing disputes, but it minimizes the adversarial nature.
"It doesn't mean people throw in the towel, it doesn't mean people give in just to give in," he said. "Hut rather, if you talk things through, if you really try to address things in a reasonable fashion, in a different model — less adversarial — then you may have more efficiency, making better results for people.
The efficiency issue in traditional divorce has a lot to do with the overburdened court system, but also a lot to do with an adversarial system that encourages every little disagreement to be approached like the vital evidence in murder trial.
Mr. Opotzner pointed to a recent Monday, Oct. 1, when the state Superior Court in Danbury was working on its "short calendar" — where most divorce proceedings are. There were 94 cases waiting for one issue or another to be dealt with by a judge.
"You have too many lawyers, with too many cases, with too few judges, and too little court time, and too many clients arguing about things that maybe don't need to be argued about," he said.
The arms race
One of the things that can happen in an adversarial divorce is that there's a kind of arms race of unreasonable demands and unrealistic positions, with each side getting more inflexible and unreasonable, because they're convinced the other side is doing the same thing.
And no one like to say it out loud but in a traditional divorce the lawyers for the two parties are paid to assist in the fight — and the more fighting there is, the more paying there will be.
In the collaborative divorce model, the financial incentives are set up differently, and push the professionals involved is to get the parties to handle things reasonably and respectfully.
"There's a lawyer for the husband. There's a lawyer for the wife. The lawyers and the parties sign a contract, which says: If we cannot resolve this case amicably and we have to go to court, then those two lawyers will be prohibited from taking the case to court, and the parties will have to hire different lawyers. The goal is to take away any incentive for the lawyers to go to court," Mr. Opotzner said.
"The same is true if you have therapists. Sometimes it's appropriate to have therapists involved up front. Again, there'd be one for each side, but if it goes to court, then these therapists could not be involved in the court process if it does not resolve itself."
Mr. Opotzner read from a statement of principles for collaborative divorce "Who controls the process? The spouses control the process and make decisions. The spouses pledge mutual respect and openness. They jointly retain specialists to provide information and guidance.
"It's voluntary, and there's more direct lines of communication," he said. "I think it's a good thing."
Collaborative divorce isn't going to be the best model for every failing marriage, but for many couples it could be a better, less acrimonious way.
Mr. Opotzner said he and the four other professionals sponsoring next Wednesday's seminar hope to increase understanding so that more people will see it as an option.
"It's going to be an hour presentation by the experts and half an hour question-and-answer," he said.
Both lawyers, both therapists and the financial consultant will speak — briefly.
"We're going to speak about 10-12 minutes each, leaving a half an hour for questions and answers," Mr. Opotzner said.
"As part of a larger movement in Connecticut, and nationally, we're trying to explain to the public a different approach," he said.
"...It may cost less money, it may not. It really depends upon the issues that arise, how things proceed," Mr. Opotzner said.
"But, to me, the real benefit is not necessarily the economics, but limiting the adversarial nature."
Copyright 2008 by Hersam Acorn Newspapers
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