In the course of my family law practice, I see on a weekly basis how devastating divorce can be to both parties and their families, often because of the contentious nature of litigation and the lack of privacy in court proceedings.

This is particularly true in West Michigan, where we have a healthy regard for privacy and often choose to think the best of others.
That’s why I’m always searching for new developments in the field of law to alleviate the pain caused by “the airing of dirty laundry” and the hard feelings that often result from contested proceedings.

One such development is Collaborative Divorce, where both parties work with a team of professionals to resolve a divorce privately and without litigation.
Collaborative Divorce is similar to mediation and emphasizes the desire by both parties and their attorneys to reach a fair and equitable resolution through meaningful negotiation regarding assets and debts, child custody, parenting time and child support.

Collaborative Divorce works best when both parties have a mature attitude about the dissolution of their marriage and a strong desire to keep the divorce from turning into a war that will hurt themselves and their children. The technique is not appropriate for cases where there are allegations of domestic violence or major mental health problems such as alcohol and drug abuse.

Collaborative Divorce starts with an agreement by both parties to participate in the collaborative process without reverting to litigation. The “team” generally includes the parties, attorneys, a mental health professional who acts as a neutral party, and perhaps a financial professional.

Collaboration is truly key in this form of “gentler” divorce. Both parties and their attorneys must be entirely forthright in sharing information and must be willing to discuss all available options.

If either party decides that he or she is not making progress and opts to proceed with a traditional divorce, the collaborative discussion is set aside, which means neither party can use their same attorney.

The upfront cost may be marginally higher than traditional divorce since there may be four professionals involved, but that initial investment is offset by reduced legal fees since there are no hearings and the divorce is finalized without a trial. Although difficult to quantify, there is also the added benefit of placing as little information as possible into the public record and of avoiding hearings that are open to the public.

It’s clear that Collaborative Divorce is gaining acceptance in metro Grand Rapids. This year a new organization called Collaborative Divorce Professionals of West Michigan was established, and the group has launched a web site at Gentlerdivorce.com to educate the public, with links to more information and answers to frequently asked questions. The website also lists 23 attorneys, 5 child specialists (divorce coaches), and 4 financial specialists that practice Collaborative Divorce.

Personally, I have high hopes that Collaborative Divorce will become even more common. I was reminded of the wrenching nature of divorce recently when a client commented about how awful the traditional divorce process was – even though he had received very favorable outcomes regarding custody and property division. For a select group of cases, I think that Collaborative Divorce can indeed prove to be a gentler divorce.

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