Can every divorce be collaborative?

I’ve practiced family law for over 15 years and spent much of that time litigating in the courtroom.  In a traditional divorce case, the fear of going to court is regularly used by mediators, lawyers, and parties as a “motivator” to settle the case. 

Going to court is one way to get the job done and, in some cases, the only way. But I recently started asking myself, should collaborative divorce be the norm?

What is collaborative divorce?

Many clients say they want an amicable divorce and to minimize the negative impact on their kids – that’s great! But in our system of traditional divorce, if they hit a roadblock, the only alternative is to go to court. No one wants to stand in front of a judge advocating for the most important things in your life – your children and your money. The stakes are high, the price is high, and, unfortunately, I’ve seen relationships damaged because of accusations brought to light in divorce court. 

Collaborative divorce is more than just an uncontested or amicable divorce. In a collaborative divorce, the spouses actually sign a contract stating that they won’t go to court.  

Wow, did you hear that collective sigh of relief?! 

With a contract in place, it is much easier to trust that your spouse is negotiating in good faith and working as hard as you are to resolve the case. It also puts the focus on the family as the best compass to guide the settlement, not the court. 

Collaborative Team

To ensure a successful process, the divorcing couple is supported by a team of professionals that all have the same goal – reach a fair settlement that is best for this unique family. The collaborative team consists of a collaboratively trained attorney for each spouse, a mental health professional who serves as a “coach,” and a financial neutral.   

I’m a member of the International Academy of Collaborative Lawyers and the King County Collaborative Law Section. My family law firm, DuBois Levias Law Group, hosts a collaborative law practice group, Cascadia Collaborative Group. Last Spring, I attended my first conference with the Collaborative Professionals of Washington (CPW) and am excited to encourage more of my clients to take the collaborative approach. 

Collaborative professionals advocate for the entire family, not just one spouse. We are also committed to helping our clients maintain a trusting co-parenting relationship. The conference reminded me of my pre-lawyer life, when I worked in the non-profit and social services world. People working toward a common goal to de-escalate conflict.  Carefully considering how the divorce will impact every member of the family and working to take care of each member is inspiring.  

Strategizing Respectfully

In some ways, collaborative divorce is a lot harder than traditional mediation or litigation because the court cannot step in as a tiebreaker. As such, everyone must be invested in working hard to reach a fair settlement. Collaborative divorces lend themselves to creative solutions which is better than a cookie cutter approach that might happen in court. So this hard work really pays off in the final agreement!

Yes, it takes heaps of cooperation and trust to proceed with a collaborative divorce. And yes, you may have picked up on how this option is most popular with families that have children and will be co-parenting together for the next decade (or longer). Strategizing respectfully now means that run-ins at soccer games, band concerts, and holidays are not as tense, ultimately protecting children from the negative effects of divorce as much as possible.

No divorce is textbook, and no family is standard. But if you are willing to spend time sorting through all the details of uncoupling, collaborative divorce can benefit both parties, prioritize kids, and help you both co-parent successfully – and without animosity – for years. I’m starting to believe collaborative divorce is the best choice for most families. 

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