A contributed perspective by Stephan J. Hess, CFP
Editor’s Note: This is another installment of a monthly series of contributed pieces addressing financial matters.
Divorce is a legal process where at the end of the day, two people dissolve a relationship and disentangle themselves financially from each other. It may seem straight forward, but divorce can be quite emotionally and financially traumatic, leaving some people with serious lifelong scars and ongoing anger. There are many different processes for obtaining a divorce, and each has certain pros and cons. The goal of this article is not to raise one above another, but to instead highlight how one of those options attempts to achieve loftier goals for the divorcing couple. “Collaborative Divorce” is a small but growing option. It is not for everyone, but for those wanting to avoid litigation or combative drama, it is certainly worth considering.
Let me just say at the outset that I am not an attorney, and that none of what I am about to share should be taken as legal advice. For legal advice you must consult an attorney, and preferably one who has divorce experience. Every case is different and is going to have its own unique set of circumstances. Talking to an attorney will help you to determine which divorce options would best fit your goals. I am, however, a member of the Collaborative Professionals of the Shenandoah Valley and have professionally participated in several collaborative and non-collaborative divorce cases over the past 9 years.
Collaborative Divorce does something unique. It builds a safe space around the process so that each spouse can openly express their personal needs, interests, and goals. Pertinent case-related information is fully disclosed and shared with the entire professional team, which we will introduce in a moment. Information is not hidden, nor is it used for leverage in any way. The overriding intention is to allow the divorcing couple to work out an agreeable solution, and to negotiate in good faith. Yes, it can happen, and it does. The thinking behind this is that if two people can get into a room and discuss the issues, the resulting agreement will be more thoughtful and better-designed as opposed to the arbitrary ruling of a judge.
Divorce represents change, and change can easily trigger negative reactions and unproductive behaviors. Even the most high-functioning and self-aware adults are going to experience unexpected emotional responses. People will naturally have financial fears for example. Supporting separate households will be costlier, so there are often concerns about changes to lifestyle and financial security. There will be fears of loss related to losing a home, a familiar routine, and important friends. If there are kids involved there may also be co-parenting fears. Making important life decisions when you are being emotionally triggered is not in your best interest. It’s especially hard when your friends and family are telling you what you deserve regardless of how unrealistic it is. This is why it takes a special team to support the process.
A full professional team consists of two Attorneys, who each represent their individual clients, a financial “Neutral”, and one or two mental health “Coaches.” If children are involved, a special child therapist “Coach” can be included as well. Each professional must complete special training to participate in a case and everyone commits to jointly supporting the divorcing couple. This can be extremely powerful because each spouse is likely to be at a very different place emotionally. Often one person has already checked out of the relationship while the other person is still incredibly raw. There is often a large discrepancy in general understanding of the household finances as well. The person who has less financial awareness is going to feel much less confident and disadvantaged. The professionals commit to working together in the best interest of everyone involved, and so do the participating couples. To eliminate conflicts of interest, the professionals are not permitted to work with the participants outside of the case.
The Attorneys are there to guide the process and if necessary, incorporate the law as needed. Make no mistake, they are there to represent you and your interests, but they do not use aggressive positioning or secret strategizing to achieve that. As a client, this provides you with much more space to find creative solutions outside of any restrictive laws if you choose. Occasionally when one spouse is having a hard day, the whole team will step in to support them, including the opposing attorney. You can still support a human being in crisis while representing your own client. This builds a lot of trust in the group, which then fosters meaningful conversation and hopefully more agreeable solutions.
The Financial Neutral is not there to audit your finances, complete a financial plan for you, or tell you what to do. They are not there to judge you, take sides, or make anyone feel bad. Many cases do have elements of past financial issues, but what is done is done. The Financial Neutral is going to help gather financial information for the team and act as a financial expert. They will support each of the spouses in whatever way is needed, to make sure each spouse clearly understands the household finances and their options.
Even though all the professionals will have a good sense of the energy and emotion in the room, the mental health coach will have a heightened awareness of the subtle shifts that naturally occur. They can quickly identify anything concerning, and to swoop in to gently diffuse it or steer it in the right direction to maintain a healthy space for everyone. I cannot emphasize enough just how important the coaches are. Inevitably there will be some difficult conversations and challenging subjects covered. Sometimes a break is needed and other times the support of a trained professional is all it takes to keep the process moving. Like the financial neutral, the mental health coaches provide only a limited role. They are not there to diagnose anything or provide ongoing personal therapy.
For collaboration to work and achieve its desired goals, everyone must have trust in the process and trust each other. This goes for all the professionals and spouses involved. You must know that no one is going to allow any team member or spouse to attack you. No one is going to allow your spouse to behave in an unhealthy way. This is not to say that it does not happen from time to time, but the team will recognize it and carefully address it. In some divorces where there has been an imbalance of power in the relationship, there is often a fear that they will just experience more of the same throughout the divorce process. The team will work to address anything that comes up, but the spouses also committed to joining the process in good faith and we will hold them to that.
Just because the word collaborative is in the name does not mean that it is easy or comfortable. Actually, in many ways, it can be much harder. But it can also so much more rewarding too. In the end two people will get divorced, which was the original intent of course. Nobody ever feels that they got everything they wanted or what they deserved, but there are often some unanticipated benefits worth acknowledging. Over the course of a case, many people develop much improved financial awareness and better money management skills. Many grow personally as well, by developing improved communication skills and emotional strength. Many people appear more confident in who they are and are ready to move forward when the divorce concludes. But the greatest thing is when someone walks away without an unhealthy anger towards their ex-spouse. Carrying that burden is not healthy. You may still have to co-parent for many years, and you will likely see your ex at family events or out in the community. Collaborative divorce does not prioritize these side benefits, but it is a benefit none the less. It’s a possible silver lining in a tough situation.
To learn more about collaborative divorce locally, visit the Collaborative Professionals of the Shenandoah Valley website.
Stephan J. Hess, CFP®, is a CERTIFIED FINANCIAL PLANNER™ professional and is the owner of Hess Financial in Harrisonburg. Neither he nor his company has any financial relationship with The Citizen or its publishers.