Archive for July, 2010

A Brief Summary of Collaborative Law – A Way Toward Amicable Divorce

Sunday, July 18th, 2010

I have previously written about Collaborative Family Law as an alternative to traditional litigation methods of resolving family disputes. Here is some additional information that describes the process and the goals of Collaborative Law.

Collaborative Law is a method for conflict resolution in which the participants focus their efforts on reaching a mutually agreeable resolution. Attorneys and other professionals are retained during the collaborative process for the sole purpose of assisting their clients in reaching this goal.

The client and their lawyers agree to work respectfully and in good faith to gather all information needed to reach an agreement, including developing the interests of each client. The participants do not engage in traditional discovery process since it tends to be expensive and lengthy. The clients and their collaborative attorneys agree from the beginning that they will produce and exchange all necessary information and documents voluntarily and in a timely fashion. Non-legal professionals are usually retained as joint neutrals and work together with the participants to define the scope of their assignment and to gather information.

The process typically includes various meetings at which the clients and their attorneys, as well as other professionals meet together to discuss the issues, make any necessary interim arrangements, and to plan for information gathering (not every professional will be present at every conference.) These conferences continue to be utilized to exchange and clarify information and to brainstorm possible options for resolution. The clients and their lawyers focus on educating everyone regarding the underlying information, each client’s interests and possible solutions. Out of this process, a settlement which meets the approval of all clients can be fashioned. Negotiations are based upon efforts to find options that will serve the interests of all clients and other affected persons, and if applicable, create the possibility for a positive continuing relationship.

The clients and their collaborative attorneys agree that they will not go to court during the time they are working towards settlement. If the clients are unable to reach an agreement, the collaborative attorneys and other professionals withdraw and litigation attorneys take the dispute to court.

Collaborative family law started with one attorney in Minnesota in 1990 and is now practiced across the United States, Canada, and internationally. Collaborative family law was started in Rochester, New York, and Monroe County, a few years ago as an attorney centered method in family law. However, more recently, other affiliated professionals including financial analysts, psychologists, counselors and coaches also became involved.  Here in Rochester, collaborative professionals belong to Collaborative Law Association of the Rochester Area, Inc. (“CLARA”) which includes among its members attorneys, child specialists, coaches, mediators and financial professionals.

Here are some questions and answers about Collaborative Law.

1. What is Collaborative Law?

Collaborative Law is a way to resolve disputes between people in a fair, open and respectful manner. In Collaborative Law, the goal is to reach a mutually acceptable settlement of a dispute that both parties will be able to abide by. The parties retain Collaborative professionals such as attorneys, accountants, financial planners, and therapists, who agree to work in good faith to gather and share all information needed to reach an agreement. The parties and their Collaborative attorneys agree in advance that they will not go to court to ask a judge to resolve their dispute for them during the collaborative process. If they are unable to reach an agreement, and one of the parties decides to go to court, the Collaborative professionals withdraw from the case. Another set of attorneys is then retained by the parties to represent them in court.

2. How does Collaborative Law differ from other methods of dispute resolution?

There are many ways to resolve disputes. Litigation is the traditional legal approach. In litigation, lawyers work hard to convince a judge (or jury) that the lawyer’s client’s version of facts is correct. Often, this includes challenging the other party’s version of the facts. Trial is often compared to a battle, in which the best side wins. However, all lawyers understand that the “best side” doesn’t always win and that in many disputes, the party who “wins” at trial still loses in other ways. In some circumstances, litigation is the only appropriate option. For example, if a party consistently hides information or is abusive, the formal procedures used in litigation may be necessary. If a party is unwilling to negotiate in good faith, a third party decision may be needed. Litigation usually costs more than other forms of dispute resolution and the outcome is typically less satisfactory.

In mediation, a neutral professional assists the parties in settling the dispute. Generally, the parties agree that all information will be shared and that they are seeking a “win-win” solution. The mediator does not represent either party and the parties do not go to court. In some forms of mediation, attorneys serve only in a consulting or reviewing capacity. In other situations, attorneys participate in the mediation. Mediation can work well for parties who have the ability to communicate their needs directly to the other person and who have similar understanding of the financial and other information being presented.

Collaborative Law combines the positive qualities of litigation and mediation. As in litigation, each party has an independent lawyer who will give her or him quality legal advice and will assist in putting forward his or her interests. Similarly to mediation, the parties and their Collaborative attorneys commit to both an open information gathering and sharing process and to resolve their differences without going to court. In addition, the parties can mutually agree to engage other professionals such as child specialists, financial specialists, coaches, vocational counselors or other neutral consultants to provide them with specialized assistance. The parties acknowledge that the best result for each of them will occur when they reach the best result for all of them.

3. How is information gathered in Collaborative Practice?

The parties do not engage in expensive legal procedures to obtain information. The parties and their Collaborative attorneys agree from the beginning that they will share all necessary information and documents voluntarily and in a timely fashion. Hiding documents or unnecessary delays are not permitted. If a party is not acting in good faith and “hides the ball”, it is the duty of the attorney to work with the client to change his or her behavior and to withdraw if the behavior continues. If a party continues to refuse to act in good faith, the Collaborative process can be terminated.

The parties decide what type of additional assistance is needed in the information gathering process and jointly engage consultants. For example, the parties can jointly hire a financial specialist to assist them in gathering and organizing financial information and to create projections for future financial possibilities. Or, they can jointly engage an appraiser to provide them with an opinion regarding the value of a particular asset.

4. How are questions relating to children addressed in Collaborative Practice?

One of the most important aspects of Collaborative Practice in a divorce dispute is the opportunity to resolve the divorce in a manner which creates a healthy co-parenting relationship so that the children’s interests and family relationships are protected. Sometimes, the parties have developed a working co-parenting relationship prior to entering the Collaborative Process. However, in many cases, the parents need assistance in transitioning from parenting in one household to parenting in two households. Divorce coaches and child specialists can assist parents in developing effective communication and in creating a parenting agreement. The Collaborative attorneys assist as needed in working out an agreement and preparing the necessary final legal documents.

5. How do the parties and professionals work together?

After initial meetings with their own Collaborative attorneys, the typical process is to start the case with a 4-way conference — the parties and Collaborative attorneys, and sometimes coaches, meet together to discuss the issues, make any necessary interim arrangements regarding children or finances, and to plan for information gathering. In addition, the parties can work individually and jointly with coaches to develop effective communication techniques and to manage the intense emotions that often accompany conflict. Additional consultants such as financial specialists, child specialists, or appraisers can also be hired to assist in other aspects of information gathering and processing. The multi-person conferences continue to be the normal means of exchanging and clarifying information and to brainstorm possible options for resolution. The Collaborative professionals work together and with their clients to plan each meeting. The parties and Collaborative attorneys focus on educating everyone regarding the underlying information, each party’s interests and possible solutions. Out of this process, a settlement which meets the approval of the parties can be fashioned.

6. Does it work to have everyone together in the same room in the middle of a conflict?

The job of the Collaborative professionals is to establish positive communication. People in a legal dispute often feel vulnerable and emotional and can be less aware of how their patterns of communication can cause problems. The Collaborative professionals help each client to present his or her interests and needs in a positive manner that will be heard by the other participants. Meeting together can help everyone to be “on the same page”, which ultimately facilitates reaching an agreement. The focus of the meetings is to find a solution, not attack each other.

7. Must an agreement be reached in Collaborative Practice?

No. All parties must voluntarily agree to the solution. No party is forced to accept a solution that does not meet his or her interests and needs. The parties understand that the goal is to fashion a solution that comes as close as possible to a “win-win” agreement, while recognizing that they won’t receive everything on their “wish list.”

8. If the parties reach an agreement through Collaborative Practice, what happens next?

The Collaborative attorneys will draft the necessary legal documents to memorialize the parties’ agreement. This paperwork is then submitted to the court for approval. A court hearing is not required.

9. What happens if a settlement cannot be reached?

If the parties cannot reach an agreement, the parties can explore other options for settlement such as mediation, arbitration, private judging and neutral case evaluation, some of which may allow them to stay within the collaborative framework. If court hearings are required, the Collaborative attorneys withdraw and each party retains a new attorney for trial.

10. Why is it necessary for the Collaborative attorney to withdraw if an agreement is not reached?

Attorneys are typically trained to approach cases with the underlying assumption that a court will make the ultimate decision. Cases are analyzed with this foundation and are settled with the backdrop being “what will happen if we go to court.” “Going to court” can often become a threat that makes communications difficult and pushes the parties apart rather than moving them toward a settlement. Since settlement has not been the focus from the very beginning, cases often do not settle until the parties are “at the courthouse steps,” after incurring substantial attorney’s fees and depleting their emotional resources.

The agreement by both the parties and Collaborative attorneys that their Collaborative attorneys will not go to court focuses everyone on creative means of settling the case in a way that is acceptable to all parties. The focus of the process stays on reaching an agreement rather than preparing a case for trial since the Collaborative attorneys will not be representing the parties in court. The tendency to “drift” to court as the default decision-making method is reduced.

11. Who should consider the Collaborative approach for their dispute?

Collaborative Practice works best for parties who wish to settle without going to court and are willing to commit to a good faith effort to do so. In Collaborative Practice, you maintain control over your decision making rather than letting a judge decide. You can also control the amount of information that becomes a part of the public record (normally, the entire divorce file is open to the public, including any allegations made by either party in obtaining temporary orders or at trial.)

People in conflict often have continuing relationships with each other, as co-parents, business colleagues, or through their circle of friends and relatives. Collaborative Practice will increase the possibility of maintaining a civil or even cordial relationship with the other person after the resolution of your conflict.

You should also consider Collaborative Practice if you wish to dramatically reduce your legal fees. A dispute that goes through the entire legal process including a trial can cost tens of thousands of dollars for each party. The formal legal procedures take much more attorney time (and your money) than the informal process used in Collaborative Law. The focus on settlement moves the case to resolution faster than the typical court-directed case, which also reduces your fees.

12. What do I do if I want to use Collaborative Practice for my dispute?

You will need to find a Collaborative attorney whom you can trust to provide you with both quality legal advice and the skills needed to work towards a settlement. You can discuss with the Collaborative attorney the ways of approaching the other parties about the collaborative process, which can include you discussing the idea with him or her, your attorney contacting the other party, or your attorney discussing it with the other party’s attorney(s), if one has been retained. In the alternative, you can contact coaches or other professionals who may be involved in the collaborative approach and discuss the process with them.

Another Update On No-Fault Divorce In New York

Monday, July 5th, 2010

I have previously written about the slow progress of no-fault divorce legislation though New York’s Senate and Assembly here and here. Finally, it appears that New York is on the cusp of passing no-fault divorce law and joining the rest of the country.

On July 1, 2010, the Assembly passed no-fault divorce bill, which previously was approved in the Senate. If signed by Gov. David Paterson, New York would no longer be the only state that doesn’t allow no-fault divorce.

Under no-fault divorce, couples would be allowed to divorce after six months and the resolution of all financial issues. They would not have to prove fault, such as abandonment or adultery, or develop a separation agreement and live apart for at least a year in order to get divorced. Proponents said the changes would save time and money and court resources.

The Assembly and Senate previously approved two other bills related to no-fault divorce. One would require counsel fees to be awarded at the beginning of a divorce process and the other would address issues related to spousal support. The measure dealing with spousal support would establish temporary spousal maintenance while the divorce proceeding is pending, revise factors for final maintenance awards and require the Law Revision Commission to study the economic consequences of divorce and maintenance actions.

While the elimination of marital fault is extremely important and would greatly benefit people seeking divorce here in Rochester and elsewhere in New York State, it is the bill dealing with temporary spousal support that is likely to present some significant legal issues if it becomes law.

The bill is interesting since unlike the existing law regarding temporary spousal support, it utilizes a formula to calculate a temporary spousal support award. The amount of spousal support and its duration are calculated on the basis of a formula as follows:

3 5-A. TEMPORARY MAINTENANCE AWARDS. A. EXCEPT WHERE THE PARTIES HAVE
4 ENTERED INTO AN AGREEMENT PURSUANT TO SUBDIVISION THREE OF THIS PART
5 PROVIDING FOR MAINTENANCE, IN ANY MATRIMONIAL ACTION THE COURT SHALL
6 MAKE ITS AWARD FOR TEMPORARY MAINTENANCE PURSUANT TO THE PROVISIONS OF
7 THIS SUBDIVISION.
8 B. FOR PURPOSES OF THIS SUBDIVISION, THE FOLLOWING DEFINITIONS SHALL
9 BE USED:
10 (1) “PAYOR” SHALL MEAN THE SPOUSE WITH THE HIGHER INCOME.
11 (2) “PAYEE” SHALL MEAN THE SPOUSE WITH THE LOWER INCOME.
12 (3) “LENGTH OF MARRIAGE” SHALL MEAN THE PERIOD FROM THE DATE OF
13 MARRIAGE UNTIL THE DATE OF COMMENCEMENT OF ACTION.
14 (4) “INCOME” SHALL MEAN:
15 (A) INCOME AS DEFINED IN THE CHILD SUPPORT STANDARDS ACT AND CODIFIED
16 IN SECTION TWO HUNDRED FORTY OF THIS ARTICLE AND SECTION FOUR HUNDRED
17 THIRTEEN OF THE FAMILY COURT ACT; AND
18 (B) INCOME FROM INCOME PRODUCING PROPERTY TO BE DISTRIBUTED PURSUANT
19 TO SUBDIVISION FIVE OF THIS PART.
20 (5) “INCOME CAP” SHALL MEAN UP TO AND INCLUDING FIVE HUNDRED THOUSAND
21 DOLLARS OF THE PAYOR’S ANNUAL INCOME; PROVIDED, HOWEVER, BEGINNING JANU-
22 ARY THIRTY-FIRST, TWO THOUSAND TWELVE AND EVERY TWO YEARS THEREAFTER,
23 THE PAYOR’S ANNUAL INCOME AMOUNT SHALL INCREASE BY THE PRODUCT OF THE

EXPLANATION–Matter in ITALICS (underscored) is new; matter in brackets
[ ] is old law to be omitted.
LBD17166-10-0
A. 10984–B 2

1 AVERAGE ANNUAL PERCENTAGE CHANGES IN THE CONSUMER PRICE INDEX FOR ALL
2 URBAN CONSUMERS (CPI-U) AS PUBLISHED BY THE UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF
3 LABOR BUREAU OF LABOR STATISTICS FOR THE TWO YEAR PERIOD ROUNDED TO THE
4 NEAREST ONE THOUSAND DOLLARS. THE OFFICE OF COURT ADMINISTRATION SHALL
5 DETERMINE AND PUBLISH THE INCOME CAP.
6 (6) “GUIDELINE AMOUNT OF TEMPORARY MAINTENANCE” SHALL MEAN THE SUM
7 DERIVED BY THE APPLICATION OF PARAGRAPH C OF THIS SUBDIVISION.
8 (7) “GUIDELINE DURATION” SHALL MEAN THE DURATIONAL PERIOD DETERMINED
9 BY THE APPLICATION OF PARAGRAPH D OF THIS SUBDIVISION.
10 (8) “PRESUMPTIVE AWARD” SHALL MEAN THE GUIDELINE AMOUNT OF THE TEMPO-
11 RARY MAINTENANCE AWARD FOR THE GUIDELINE DURATION PRIOR TO THE COURT’S
12 APPLICATION OF ANY ADJUSTMENT FACTORS AS PROVIDED IN SUBPARAGRAPH ONE OF
13 PARAGRAPH E OF THIS SUBDIVISION.
14 (9) “SELF-SUPPORT RESERVE” SHALL MEAN THE SELF-SUPPORT RESERVE AS
15 DEFINED IN THE CHILD SUPPORT STANDARDS ACT AND CODIFIED IN SECTION TWO
16 HUNDRED FORTY OF THIS ARTICLE AND SECTION FOUR HUNDRED THIRTEEN OF THE
17 FAMILY COURT ACT.
C. THE COURT SHALL DETERMINE THE GUIDELINE AMOUNT OF TEMPORARY MAINTE-
19 NANCE IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE PROVISIONS OF THIS PARAGRAPH AFTER DETER-
20 MINING THE INCOME OF THE PARTIES:
21 (1) WHERE THE PAYOR’S INCOME IS UP TO AND INCLUDING THE INCOME CAP:
22 (A) THE COURT SHALL SUBTRACT TWENTY PERCENT OF THE INCOME OF THE PAYEE
23 FROM THIRTY PERCENT OF THE INCOME UP TO THE INCOME CAP OF THE PAYOR.
24 (B) THE COURT SHALL THEN MULTIPLY THE SUM OF THE PAYOR’S INCOME UP TO
25 AND INCLUDING THE INCOME CAP AND ALL OF THE PAYEE’S INCOME BY FORTY
26 PERCENT.
27 (C) THE COURT SHALL SUBTRACT THE INCOME OF THE PAYEE FROM THE AMOUNT
28 DERIVED FROM CLAUSE (B) OF THIS SUBPARAGRAPH.
29 (D) THE GUIDELINE AMOUNT OF TEMPORARY MAINTENANCE SHALL BE THE LOWER
30 OF THE AMOUNTS DETERMINED BY CLAUSES (A) AND (C) OF THIS SUBPARAGRAPH;
31 IF THE AMOUNT DETERMINED BY CLAUSE (C) OF THIS SUBPARAGRAPH IS LESS THAN
32 OR EQUAL TO ZERO, THE GUIDELINE AMOUNT SHALL BE ZERO DOLLARS.
33 (2) WHERE THE INCOME OF THE PAYOR EXCEEDS THE INCOME CAP:
34 (A) THE COURT SHALL DETERMINE THE GUIDELINE AMOUNT OF TEMPORARY MAIN-
35 TENANCE FOR THAT PORTION OF THE PAYOR’S INCOME THAT IS UP TO AND INCLUD-
36 ING THE INCOME CAP ACCORDING TO SUBPARAGRAPH ONE OF THIS PARAGRAPH, AND,
37 FOR THE PAYOR’S INCOME IN EXCESS OF THE INCOME CAP, THE COURT SHALL
38 DETERMINE ANY ADDITIONAL GUIDELINE AMOUNT OF TEMPORARY MAINTENANCE
39 THROUGH CONSIDERATION OF THE FOLLOWING FACTORS:
40 (I) THE LENGTH OF THE MARRIAGE;
41 (II) THE SUBSTANTIAL DIFFERENCES IN THE INCOMES OF THE PARTIES;
42 (III) THE STANDARD OF LIVING OF THE PARTIES ESTABLISHED DURING THE
43 MARRIAGE;
44 (IV) THE AGE AND HEALTH OF THE PARTIES;
45 (V) THE PRESENT AND FUTURE EARNING CAPACITY OF THE PARTIES;
46 (VI) THE NEED OF ONE PARTY TO INCUR EDUCATION OR TRAINING EXPENSES;
47 (VII) THE WASTEFUL DISSIPATION OF MARITAL PROPERTY;
48 (VIII) THE TRANSFER OR ENCUMBRANCE MADE IN CONTEMPLATION OF A MATRIMO-
49 NIAL ACTION WITHOUT FAIR CONSIDERATION;
50 (IX) THE EXISTENCE AND DURATION OF A PRE-MARITAL JOINT HOUSEHOLD OR A
51 PRE-DIVORCE SEPARATE HOUSEHOLD;
52 (X) ACTS BY ONE PARTY AGAINST ANOTHER THAT HAVE INHIBITED OR CONTINUE
53 TO INHIBIT A PARTY’S EARNING CAPACITY OR ABILITY TO OBTAIN MEANINGFUL
54 EMPLOYMENT. SUCH ACTS INCLUDE BUT ARE NOT LIMITED TO ACTS OF DOMESTIC
55 VIOLENCE AS PROVIDED IN SECTION FOUR HUNDRED FIFTY-NINE-A OF THE SOCIAL
56 SERVICES LAW;

In some respects, having a formula creates some predictability with respect to temporary spousal support awards that has been missing in the present law. At the same time, the blind application of the formula is likely to cause a different set of problems. If the bill passes, how these provisions are going to be interpreted by the courts is somewhat uncertain. As far as the divorce lawyers are concerned, this is likely to force divorce lawyers to spend even more time counseling clients with respect to temporary spousal support and post-divorce spousal support issues.