United States: Family Law: Collaborative Law Alliance Rolling Out Divorce Process Roadmap

Originally published in the New Hampshire Bar Association

The Collaborative Law Alliance of New Hampshire (CLANH) has developed a new roadmap to assist divorcing parties in achieving their goals efficiently and effectively, and to let them know where they are in the process at every stage.

In a collaborative divorce, the parties and their lawyers pledge to reach agreement without court involvement, with the assistance of professional neutrals as necessary. Because the collaborative process takes place outside the court system, it is not governed by the rules of civil procedure. However, standards of practice have evolved in New Hampshire since collaborative divorce practice took hold here a dozen years ago. The CLANH Divorce Proceess Roadmap tells clients and professional team members what to expect at each stage.

The roadmap emphasizes the financial aspects of divorce. Although it includes some general references to development of a parenting plan, issues relating to children are unique, and the collaborative team will address those issues in a manner appropriate to the specific circumstances.

The roadmap begins with a statement of principles for development of a fair and equitable financial plan. The parties pledge to take personal responsibility for maximizing their financial potential, acknowledge each other's contributions, respect each other's authentic needs and dignity, and fully and promptly disclose financial information (guided by Family Division Rule 1.25A).

Following the statement of principles, the roadmap sets forth a checklist, organized into the following five stages:

Stage One: Signing onto the process and assembling the team;

Stage Two: Information gathering;

Stage Three: Identifying interests and concerns for the future;

Stage Four: Six-way meeting to generate options and create financial plan;

Stage Five: Finalizing and implementing the agreement.

The collaborative divorce roadmap is intended to be a general guideline. In some cases, the team may decide that a different timeline will fit better. A typical "team" in a New Hampshire collaborative divorce will consist of the parties, their counsel, a coach, and a financial neutral. Non-lawyer professional team members must be members of the Collaborative Law Alliance, whose membership guidelines require specific experience and training.

The coach is a licensed mental health professional whose role on the team is to help the parties prioritize their concerns, process their differences and feelings in healthy ways, and stay focused on their goals by neutralizing or minimizing destructive emotions, so that they may communicate effectively with one another and their lawyers. The coach plays an important role in stage two, information gathering. He/She meets with both parties to explain his/her role as a neutral and assess the parties' dynamics, communication style and capacity for coping with conflict. The coach also meets individually with the parties to identify hot-button issues. The coach then shares information with counsel about the parties' dynamic and areas of concern. At stage four, the roadmap recommends that the coach facilitate the six-way meeting.

The financial neutral assists the parties in gathering and understanding relevant financial information about their assets, debts, income and expenses. At stage two, the financial professional reviews the parties' financial affidavits and Rule 1.25A documents, and helps them and their attorneys determine what information or appraisals may be missing. At stage three, the parties work with their attorneys and the financial professional to develop realistic projections of future expense budgets and income.

At stage three, it will become apparent whether or not the parties have differing values and beliefs regarding their future financial lives. The coach may assist the parties in moving through the emotions associated with financial conflicts. Especially where alimony and child support are concerned, the parties must reach consensus on each their projected budgets in order to have a productive meeting on settlement options.

One important goal of the roadmap is to have the parties reach agreement on how much each reasonably needs and/or can afford to pay. The team confers regularly by telephone to discuss the parties' progress toward reaching consensus on such financial issues. Once the parties are sufficiently in alignment and prepared to discuss solutions, the six-way meeting is scheduled. As mentioned above, this settlement meeting is not the time to debate valuations or projected expenses. That foundation has been built at earlier stages. At the six-way meeting the financial neutral may assist by demonstrating how various proposed scenarios for child support, alimony, and property division would play out over time.

Once an agreement is reached, the attorneys draft necessary paperwork to submit to the court (stage six).

The roadmap includes practice tips for team members at each stage. It is being discussed in New Hampshire Collaborative practice group meetings statewide. Members who have used it report that clients and professional team members have embraced the roadmap. Knowing what to expect reduces clients' anxiety so they can focus on working out an agreement. Attorneys Lisa Forberg and David Sayward, members of CLANH's board, have led the group in developing the roadmap. They are planning a seminar to roll out the use of the roadmap early next year.

Jeanmarie Papelian is a director at McLane, Graf, Raulerson & Middleton, where she serves as co-chair of the Domestic Relations Practice Group. She is an experienced collaborative practitioner, marital mediator and parenting coordinator.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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