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Collaborative Divorce Comes To Pennsylvania

A group of therapists and lawyers in Pennsylvania have formed a group to promote a new form of marital dispute resolution which was developed in California. Collaborative Family Law Affiliates [tentative name] are promoting the new process, known as Collaborative Divorce in California, because it combines the benefits of the mediation process and the protections and security of the traditional legal model. It is a team approach which is an integrated, cross-disciplinary effort to affect positive change in the family system. The different professionals are released to speak to each other, loosening the tyranny of polarized positions and focusing attention on the needs of their children.

Collaborative Divorce was developed in California, the birthplace of divorce mediation and other family court related innovations. The developers of Collaborative Divorce gave a two-day seminar and training to the Collaborative Family Law Affiliates in King of Prussia in September of this year. In addition to the Affiliates from Pennsylvania, there were lawyers and therapists from five states.

The essence of the collaborative process is expressed in the contractual commitment, of the parties, their lawyers and their therapists, not to litigate and to provide full disclosure of the assets. Everyone agrees that, if either party initiates litigation, the attorneys must resign and the collaborative divorce contract is broken. The team of professionals includes: same sex mental health counselors/coaches for each party; a mutually selected, neutral financial advisor; and a child specialist, if needed. The team appoints a leader and may use others trained in the process as consultants to perfect their team performance. All involved must explain the process and obtain releases and authorizations, from their clients, sufficient to satisfy their respective ethical obligations.

Most importantly, the child specialist works with the child or children, assisting the child or children in coping, as well as giving the child or children a voice in the team process. Specialists are also expected to teach parenting skills and give practical advice on shared custody or visitation schedules. If agreed by the parties, the child specialist may perform testing, mediate the parties' differences and make referrals to other specialists who can help the child or children.

It is one of the jobs of the mental health coaches to act as "hand holders" and help parties distinguish the practical from emotional issues. In addition, they are mouthpieces for client concerns and interpret client reactions for the team. One purpose in using same sex mental health counselors is to help keep the parties' morale up and prevent them from slipping into a gender war mentality. Teaching communication skills for the post divorce environment is another function of the same gender coach.

The neutral financial advisor reports and analyzes the information which the parties have disclosed and helps guarantee that full disclosure and adequate valuation of assets actually occurs. The parties may hire mutually acceptable appraisers for difficult to value assets.

It has been estimated by those in California who have had extensive experience with collaborative processes that the cost of the team intervention, exclusive of attorney's fees, typically runs twenty five hundred dollars. That cost is significantly less than a complete child custody evaluation or the cost of a divorce which runs out of control because of hurt feelings, misunderstandings, or lack of cooperation.

Why may collaborative divorce be the best system developed yet? Because the process creates numerous disincentives to litigants and encourages a child friendly process, which neither mediation nor the traditional adversarial model guarantee. Though mediation erodes the court process, it frequently becomes a theater for the parties' perpetuation of their own neuroses and need to dissemble, hide assets, and evade responsibilities. In collaborative divorce, accountability through effective team development is the goal.

Collaborative family dissolution may not substitute for the court process in every case. But those individuals who may have a genuine concern for their children's well being and a desire to be open, honest, and civilized, may select collaborative family law as the first bridge to a new life.

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I conveniently represent clients in the Bucks, Chester, Delaware, Montgomery, and Philadelphia Counties, the towns of Wayne, Radnor, Philadelphia, King of Prussia, Paoli, Devon, Berwyn, Newtown Square, Villanova, Bryn Mawr, Haverford, Ardmore, Lower Merion, Media, Wallingford, and Swarthmore, and throughout Pennsylvania.


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