Monday, February 1, 2016

Safe Confrontation in Collaborative Cases

Have you ever wanted to just tell off your spouse or someone else who made you angry? You may have done it from time to time, or you may have kept your feelings bottled up like many people do. Sometimes that's a good thing to do, but most often it's not handled very well and the problems escalate.

If you don't get to express yourself and address your concerns, the situation may just continue while your stress level rises.

One of the great benefits of Collaborative Law is the opportunity to learn skills to communicate better and to do so in a safe, controlled atmosphere.   Instead of just reacting and blurting out your feelings, you learn how to express yourself in a way that will be heard and respected. 

Here's what we do in Collaborative cases.

  • Attorneys meet and talk with their clients before and after joint meetings.  They can even pause a joint meeting and meet privately when a difficult issue comes up.  Attorneys can help their clients respond to the situation in a constructive way. As much as possible, sensitive topics are planned for.
  • Attorneys also meet with the other attorney and other professionals before and after joint meetings.  They can also take a time out and meet briefly during a joint meeting so they can coordinate how to deal safely with a difficult issue.
  • The neutral mental health professional (MHP) we normally use in Collaborative Law cases in North Texas works with the parties as needed on their communication skills.  The MHP also manages each joint meeting and pays close attention to the body language and mood of each of the participants.  I have had several meetings stopped by the MHP so immediate concerns about what was happening could be addressed.
  • There's an emphasis on both parties learning to listen better and use language more carefully.  Learning to listen before speaking is very helpful.  Also, everyone benefits from learning to choose one's words and thinking about what is being said and how it affects others.
  • Focus on the future.  We encourage the parties to not re-hash the past.  We don't need to get into assigning blame or pointing out fault for past problems.  Instead , we help the parties learn to be constructive in planning for the future.
In Collaborative cases, we don't want to suppress issues.  We do want to help the parties learn productive and safe ways to express themselves so that they can resolve problems that come up during the Collaborative process as well as  after the divorce.

Friday, January 15, 2016

Do You Really Need a Lawyer?

I recently read a divorce article  on line that I really disagreed with. The premise was that smart people didn't need to hire a lawyer to get a divorce.

The author was probably basing her ideas on how divorce works in California.  It may work there, but I still see lots of problems with DIY.  Even in California with their regimented divorce process, there are still many cases where Collaborative Law can be very beneficial.  Here in Texas, there are even more reasons to hire a lawyer and use Collaborative Law.

1.  Texas divorce forms alone are not sufficient in complicated cases.  Where there are children, you want to have enforceable and appropriate orders for access, support and decision-making.   Just taking a chance with on line forms is not a good idea.  If your order isn't drawn correctly, it's worthless at best and potentially harmful to your interests.

2.  It is very common for a party negotiating without an attorney, to get bullied or bluffed into making a very bad agreement.  It could be paying too much or receiving too little support or not getting proper value for some assets or giving up rights unnecessarily.

3.  Incorrect assumptions are often made, to the serious detriment of one of the parties.  In Texas, for example, there's no automatic 50-50 division of assets or liabilities.   Also, retirement assets may be community property which generally should be divided, but they may include some separate property that was earned prior to marriage.  Plus, how do you deal with a house that's just in one party's name?  You need lawyers to help with these issues.

4.  Few couples can work through these problems just on  their own or with a therapist or financial professional.  Mediators can help some, but mediators can't give legal advice.  No matter how smart a person is, a lawyer is important when there are hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars at risk. Most people benefit from the team of professionals used in Texas:  two attorneys, one neutral mental health professional and one neutral financial professional.

5.  You can't rely on a Judge to correct any mistakes you make in negotiating an agreement.  Judges can't give legal advice and they generally won't point out your mistakes unless something is clearly illegal.

Best bet:  talk to a Collaborative lawyer before you start. Discus the different process options  for working out the terms of your divorce. You may decide to do it yourself, but you also find out that you need help.  It's better to discover that at the beginning rather than post-divorce when you are having problems.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Considering Divorce?

'Tis the Season!

For several years, January has been a very popular month to start a divorce.  There are lots of reasons for that popularity, but mostly it seems to come down to the start of a new year being a time for fresh starts.

For those about to suggest a divorce or for those hearing about plans for a divorce from a spouse, it's time to take action.  That's true even if you don't want a divorce.  Doing nothing can be very dangerous.  With that in mind, here are five tips to keep in mind.

How to start -- The best first step is to consult with an attorney.

Yes, you may have to pay a consultation fee, but that is a small investment compared to what may be at stake.  Meet with an experienced family law attorney and find out what your options are.  There are several different processes that can be used to get a divorce, with varying degrees of cost, difficulty and damage. There's no "one size fits all".  You need to consider which way you prefer to proceed. 

Immediate concerns.  You need to think short-term to consider some of the following issues:
  • Who stays in the house?
  • How are the bills paid?
  • What do you say to the children?
  • How do you break the news to your spouse?
  • How can you get along with your spouse while the divorce is pending?

Plan ahead -- things to do before filing:
  • Gather records on your finances.
  • Have control of some money.
  • As odd as it may sound, try to be considerate and nice to your spouse. It's easier and better to divorce a friend than an enemy.
  • Make a plan for where you will live and how you will separate the clothing, personal effects and furniture.
  • If you have kids, plan how you and your spouse can share time and responsibility for the children.
Read up on the divorce process.

There's tons of information on line about divorce, although you should be careful to not read about other states.  Their laws are different and usually don't apply here. There's plenty of Texas information available.

Don't Do It Yourself! 

I recommend against DIY unless you have a very short marriage, AND there are no kids AND there is no property (other than personal effects) AND there are no debts.  If you have any of those, you should also have an attorney.  There's a lot to lose if you don't know what you're doing!
 Good luck, plan ahead and work with an attorney.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

What is Family Peace Worth?

At any time of the year, it's easy to find families in turmoil.  In some cases, it gets worse around the holiday season. Even in intact families, there's often a lot conflict.  People don't get along with each other.  Sometimes disagreements can be resolved.  Counseling is a good option when the problems get more intense.  Unfortunately, counseling won't always put Humpty Dumpty or upset spouses back together again.

History shows that many people are thinking about divorce during the holidays.  Family conflicts can become unbearable,  or maybe there's just no fire anymore.  In December, between multiple religious holidays and the end of the year, many people start looking for relief by splitting up the family and terminating the marriage.

Traditionally, when people think of divorce, they picture court battles, dirty tactics and spending lots of money.  For most people, that's not appealing.  For the people who look forward to the battles, I don't have any encouragement.  My interest is in helping the people who want to avoid destruction.

People should be aware that they have a choice.  They can choose litigation and fighting, or they can focus on finding peaceful solutions through quiet negotiations around the kitchen table, in mediation or using Collaborative Law.

  • Kitchen table -- With this approach, the parties meet, usually without attorneys, and directly negotiate a comprehensive agreement to settle the divorce issues.  This rarely works, but can work where there are few assets and debts and where they are not really fighting over the children.  When it does, I recommend that they consider hiring an attorney to draw up the papers. Some problems with this approach are that issues and assets may be overlooked, one side may control the information and one side may be in a more powerful role in the relationship.
  • Mediation -- In Texas, most family law mediations involve both parties and their attorneys.   Having a neutral third-party mediator work with the two sides is a very effective way to resolve the case.  Before having the mediation, information must be shared. In mediation, the information is reviewed and discussed.  When the parties can agree on the facts, they can move to a final settlement. The mediator typically  moves back and forth between the two sides, carrying proposals for settlement as the parties move toward an agreement.  The process is usually successful, but often occurs many months after the divorce process began.
  • Collaborative -- The Texas model for Collaborative Law usually includes a neutral therapist (MHP) working as a communication facilitator (and sometimes as a parenting plan advisor), and a neutral financial advisor (FP) who helps both parties gather and organize the relevant financial information to be used in dividing the assets and providing support for the parties and their children. Much of the preliminary work is done without the attorneys present, which saves money for the parties.                                                                                                             There will be a series of joint meetings with the parties, attorneys and the MHP and FP where issues are identified, goals are set up, information is gathered and shared, and then options are developed and agreed upon. The parties agree to not go to court.The process is usually successful, but if it breaks down, the attorneys have to withdraw (since they agreed to not go to court); that's one of the main reason the process is successful, since the parties don't want to start over with new lawyers and the original lawyers don't want to lose the business.  The result is that they don't give up easily -- they keep looking for other creative ways to settle difficult issues.
There are good and bad points about each approach.  Mostly, the best approach may depend on your situation.

  • If you have the superior information or bargaining strength, the Kitchen Table may be best for you, if you can get your spouse to try it. 
  • If you are in litigation, Mediation is usually the best way out. 
  • If you are just starting out and want a safe, reasonable process, try Collaborative Law.

For best results, consult with an attorney to figure out the best way for you to proceed in your situation.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Getting Through the Holidays -- While Planning a Divorce

It usually takes a while to come to the realization that divorce may be the best alternative to a contentious, disconnected or dying marriage.  Few people have a sudden realization that it's over.  Many people gradually decide they want a divorce.  In some cases, physical or financial danger pushes a person to initiate a divorce quickly, and that's appropriate.  More often, there's time to think about the pros and cons and to plan how and when to initiate the process.

When there are children involved, most people want to try to insulate and protect the children from the stress, conflict and disruption of a divorce.  Unfortunately, in some cases, a parent will immediately want to drag the children into the middle of the dispute, often hoping for sympathy and support, but sometimes to hurt the other parent.

Holidays are some of the more stressful times of the year, even without marital discord raising the conflict level.  When a looming divorce is added to the mix, things can be pretty tense during what we like to think is a happy season.

If you are considering/anticipating a divorce now, here are some suggestions to help keep "Merry" and "Happy" part of your life during the holiday seasons.

1.  Go ahead and meet with a lawyer.  You need to know what your process options are.  As I have mentioned in prior posts, you have a range of options from meeting with your spouse at a kitchen table and negotiating, to mediation with or without an attorney, to litigation -- the most common approach, to Collaborative Law.  The attorney should be able to help you decide which approach would work best for your situation.  You don't have to start right away, but you can prepare.

2.  Consider waiting to start until after the holidays.  If you have children, this is probably a good idea, unless there are safety issues or a danger of financial loss.  Filing before or during the holidays will certainly be upsetting for children.

3.  Take steps to keep this away from the children.  Whatever difficulties you are having with your spouse should not be discussed with or near the children.  Adult matters should be kept away from the children.  They need to enjoy their holiday time without being pulled into a divorce.

4.  Take steps to protect your interests.  
  • Gather your financial records.  Figure out how you can obtain some cash or credit to pay for professional expenses and your living expenses if you get cut off financially by your spouse. You can start listing and photographing property that you want to preserve or have counted in a property division.
  • Start quietly gathering up or at least locating important personal items, such as jewelry, photos, guns, collections, etc.  You don't need to hide things, but you should find the items you want.
  • Keep up your involvement with the kids.  Holidays have lots of activities for children at school or at your religious institution.  Be sure you show up, help and be an active parent. Also, spend time playing with your children. It's fun for you and the kids.
5.  Go to counseling.  If you are undecided, counseling can help you sort out your issues and feelings. If both you and your spouse have decided to file after the holidays, counseling can help you deal with on-going stresses.  If you have decided to file, but your spouse doesn't know, a counselor can help you be confident in your decision and help you plan ahead for difficult times during and after the holidays.  

While I can't promise that you will be happy during the holidays, the above steps will help you reduce the stress of the pre-divorce situation and make the holidays more bearable. Best Wishes!

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Slowing Down for Interim Issues

Sometimes, the biggest irritants come in the smallest packages.

In Collaborative cases, and sometimes in litigated divorces, people can end up spending a lot of time on the small stuff, rather than the big issues like dividing pensions, what to do with the house and how to share the rights and duties of parents.

There are often other issues, such as the following, that can really slow down the settlement process and add some stress to the proceedings.  Consider what can happen with disagreements over:

  • Dividing up furniture between the parties.  Usually, it's not a big issue, but sometimes a piece or two of furniture can have a lot of emotional attachment. 
  • Whether to buy a house during the divorce or afterwards.  Most of the time, a purchase is done post-divorce, but there may be reasons or opportunities to consider while everything else is up in the air.  Financing and ownership rights can be handled, but it takes extra work during the divorce.
  • Getting a new car.  This often comes up, especially when the other spouse manages to get a new car just before the divorce is filed.  Again, financing and ownership can be a little tricky, and the new payment will affect future budgets. Plus, the spreadsheet has to be adjusted to reflect new debt and probably the movement of some cash for a down payment. 
  • Disagreements over credit card use.  It's just another thing to fight about or a way to try to control the spouse, depending on one's point of view. 
  •  Getting bills paid.  How living expenses are divided during the interim can be a big issue, if cash flow is limited. 
  • Visitation.  How time with the child is shared by the parents may be easy to work out or extremely contentious.  In Collaborative cases, thankfully, we have the parents first work with the Mental Health Professional (MHP) or a child specialist.  This is actually a very serious and important issue, so it will take a long time if there are major disagreements. 
  • Travel plans.  Because children are involved, it's sometimes hard for a parent to let go and trust the other parent on big travel plans.  Then there's the element in some cases of being able to afford the proposed trip. Some parents have trouble adjusting to a reduced standard of living. The MHP is often a big help on this type issue. 
  • Vacations.  This is a recurring issue, especially at the beginning of separating the family into two families. Who gets to make the summer plans or how do we alternate or coordinate the control over planning? This can be a big emotional issue and can stall progress toward a settlement.
All of these issue may appear rather insignificant initially, but can blow up to big, difficult issues that eat up a lot of time.  At least, with Collaborative Law, each party has the full opportunity to participate in the decisions to resolve the issues.

The point to remember:  These are often serious issues and they can take a considerable amount of time to resolve.  It's important to efficiently work on them, but make sure everyone feels good about the decisions. The divorce process will slow down, but it can't be helped. The best strategy is to try to be flexible!

Thursday, October 1, 2015

What to Do if You Are Uncertain

People come to a decision about filing for divorce in different ways.  Some are unexpectedly confronted with a demand or request for a divorce. Others think about it for a long time before making a decision.  Still others want to talk to someone about the best course of action. Some want to come up with a specific plan of action before beginning. And there may be other steps followed by other people.

This post is for those people who have started considering divorce, but just aren't yet sure whether to go that route or to stay and try to fix the marriage.  If you find yourself wondering what to do, here are some suggestions.

1.  Find an attorney.  Yes, be prepared to pay for a consultation if you want to have a serious discussion of the pros and cons.  A good family lawyer will not try to talk you into a divorce.  Experienced lawyers know that there are sometimes good reasons to stay in what has become a difficult relationship, as long as your safety is not compromised. You can talk to your friends, neighbors, hair dresser, relatives and others, but they won't have the same educated and broad overview that an attorney will have.

2.  Discuss the processes and possible outcomes.  There are different ways to get divorced, not just the common way of litigating in court.  One size doesn't fit all.  You should try to understand your options and figure out which would be best for your situation.  Again, don't rely on your friends for this information.  An attorney will be able to compare litigation to mediation to Collaboration to informal negotiations. It's OK to take some time to think it over.

3.  Decide on your timing. It may be better financially to wait a while or it may be better to go ahead and file so you can finish before the end of the year.  On the other hand, maybe you should wait since your needs and expenses may change over time. Or, it may take a while for you to decide whether you really want to move forward on a divorce. Choose what benefits your situation best.

Take your time.  Get help.  Look at the situation from different angles.