Reorganize. Restructure. Resolve. What do these words have to do with the painful, disruptive process known as dissolution, or divorce? Not much? Let me introduce you to a new paradigm for this usually perfidious event: the concept of No Court Divorce. Hold on. Isn't that an oxymoron? Why, the very word "attorney" comes from the Old English, meaning "at tournament," or "one who fights on behalf of another, for a fee." Can a dissolution actually take place without litigious lawyers who battle with briefs drawn? Without black-robed, beetle-browed judges, who beat their gavels mercilessly, and with each blow decimate income, disrupt visitation, destroy any hope of an intact, if restructured family? Read on.
Let me explain what No Court Divorce is not. It is not marriage therapy or reconciliation counseling. It works on the assumptions that the marriage is over and that the time has come to start building a restructured family. It is not appropriate for marriages in which one of the parties harbors hope that the marriage may continue. No Court Divorce culminates where the typical divorce begins, at the filing of the petition for dissolution. Isn't that putting things backward? Don't such "stalling tactics" create problems for the former couple? Confusion for the children? Don't they lengthen the procedure and inflate the cost? The answer to all the above questions is a simple and emphatic "No."
Divorce is usually a messy, tear-stained, and highly emotional event for all parties involved. It was ever thus. No Court Divorce cannot magically alleviate the pain, guilt, and shame; or the blaming, "if it wasn't for you" way of thinking. No Court Divorce is no panacea. It is a process. Like all procedures, it follows a series of orderly steps to completion. And "completion" is a key word No Court Divorce can provide divorcing families with a psychological completion, or closure, that the traditional method of dissolution, litigation, can never match.
Can any attorney do a No Court Divorce? Attorneys, like most other professionals, are required to continue their education long after law school, long after passing the bar exam. Lawyers must complete a certain number of CLEs, or Continuing Legal Education units, each year, and California Certified Family Law Specialists must take at least twelve hours of specialized professional training per year. If one has a broken leg, it should be set by an orthopedic doctor. If one requires a root canal, an endodontist is favored. Likewise with the law. A Personal Injury lawyer can do a dissolution, but a Certified Family Law specialist is preferred. As for No Court Divorce, it should only be undertaken by a Family Law specialist who has been trained in collaborative, or "cooperative" law.
Who qualifies for No Court Divorce? The bad news: not everyone. The good news: anyone who is willing to put the emotional wholeness of their family before personal ill will, vendetta, and one-upmanship will qualify.
There are six simple steps to No Court Divorce: Assessment, Intervention, Issue Identification, Process Selection, Initiation of the Legal Procedure, and finally, Closure.
In the Assessment phase, the divorcing parties work with an attorney who is well-versed in collaborative law, to identify the emotional profile of the family, and determine effective interventions to assist the family as it is restructured. In this initial stage the parties meet and confer, discussing all options available, with the express goal of designing a strategy that will contribute to the family's reorganization, rather than have the family destroyed by dissolving all family ties.
Based on this information, the parties, with assistance from the lawyer, determine Step Two, the Interventions appropriate for their case. These interventions may include, but are not limited to, Separation Therapy, Parenting classes, Rage Management, Personal Coaching, and individual psychotherapy. It may be decided that the children will benefit by becoming a part of a group for children of divorcing families. All of this may sound expensive. One can imagine dollars flying out of the family checking account and into the pockets of these various professionals. Remember, however, that the family with average income, who owns a home and two cars, and perhaps a pension plan, may conservatively expect to spend a minimum of $60,000 on a litigated divorce. A great deal more will be spent if child custody is an issue. A No Court divorce will cost a small traction of this, even with all parties in therapy. Consider also the personal benefit to those involved. It takes 300 hours of guided instruction to become a manicurist, 3000 hours of supervised training, plus a master's degree, to become a psychotherapist, and zero hours of schooling or training to marry, or become a parent. Two of life's most important events are left to chance and luck. That's pretty scary. Family restructuring should not be similarly treated. The truth is that divorcing parents do not become divorced from each other, they become divorced to each other, for as long as their children live. Why then should they not work together to achieve a healthy divorce, one in which mutual respect, and concern for the best interests of the children prevail?
In Step Three, Issue Identification, the parties learn to apportion income streams, material assets, and, with the assistance of a specialist, design an overall tax plan to facilitate a reorganization that contributes to the family welfare rather than harms it. Insurance provisions can be addressed, and a parenting plan designed with the help of a children's coordinator.
Next comes Process Selection, the fourth step during which the parties examine the options of negotiation, mediation, arbitration, or case management. The best method of settling any dispute is with negotiation. If both parties have willingly and honestly participated in Issue Identification, then negotiation is a good possibility. If, however, either party has a preponderance of power and the other feels even slightly coerced, negotiation cannot take place. Mediation is then preferred.
In this paradigm of No Court Divorce, mediation is accomplished with the assistance of a trained mediator and a collaborative lawyer to represent each party. Two lawyers and one mediator. Sound expensive? Not compared with sitting in a backlogged court room for days, not-so-patiently awaiting an available courtroom and a busy judge, who will then take your matters into his hands and decide them for the two of you. He decides, not you. And remember, your lawyer, and opposing counsel, each bill on an hourly basis. While these attorneys wait with the parties to the action, they are unable to work on anyone else's case. They must be responsible to the court, on hand and available, and their time adds up, even with good intentions. If matters cannot be settled through mediation, arbitration is available, using an arbitrator, or rent-a-judge.
The presiding judge of the Family Law Department of the Los Angeles County Superior Court has instituted a program through which a retired judge or family law attorney may be hired by your representing lawyers to hear your case. This is also more cost effective than traditional litigation because it eliminates the expensive wait. However, it is the least preferable option. It gives Your power to decide Your matter to Someone else. That Someone makes the decisions, not you. Remember, the more you and your soon to be former spouse agree, the less costly your dissolution. An important purpose of No Court Divorce is to avoid the debilitating financial and emotional expenses of litigation and to choose a healthier, more financially sensible alternative process for dispute resolution.
Initiation, the fifth step, is where typical courtroom divorces begin. In No Court Divorce, this step and the sixth are generally the swiftest to navigate. Initiation begins when the parties decide it is time to file the Petition for Dissolution. Frequently a joint petition is filed. This reinforces the collaborative nature of the dissolution, eliminates an "I'm up -- you're down" mind set, and helps forestall adversarial tendencies. At this time temporary Orders, responses, and Case Management stipulations are filed, a Voluntary Settlement Conference may take place, and the parties participate in a joint resolution based on consensus. When the judge decides, everybody is unhappy. When the parties decide, everyone is usually much happier with the resulting choices.
The process enters the final, sixth stage, Closure, or completion, when the judgment is prepared and entered. The final tax analysis is in order, insurance provisions are put in place, and, if desired, a ceremony may take place to commemorate the conclusion of the dissolution and reinforce the vision of the still viable, though restructured, family unit.
An insightful CPA with whom I work told me the advice he always gives his divorcing clients: "It is as important to have a good divorce as it is to have a good marriage. You may have to live longer with the divorce than you lived with the marriage." Those who, best efforts aside, find themselves walking the path of dissolution would be wise to follow his advice. No Court Divorce provides healthier restructured families, stronger support their the children, and may serve to mend and embellish co-parenting relationships for years to come.
Ronald M. Supancic is a California Certified Family Law Specialist and past-president and founding member of the Coalition for Collaborative Divorce.Back To Top
Certified Divorce Financial Analyst
Business Valuators / CPAs