Texas Collaborative Divorce Law — Restructuring Your Family with Dignity
Are you and your spouse candidates for Collaborative Divorce? Do you and your spouse wish to avoid fighting in court, yet you cannot reach agreements without help? Or do you each need an attorney to advise you of your rights without escalating the tension between you? If so, collaborative divorce law may be your answer.
In collaborative divorce cases, each party hires his or her own attorney. The parties and their attorneys agree not to litigate any of the issues. The parties and attorneys meet for a series of structured settlement conferences to negotiate the final outcome of the case. An important benefit of collaborative divorce law is that the parties are in control of their case; they are able to come up with solutions that are often very different from what a judge would order. By working together for a settlement, families avoid the escalation in hostility that occurs through litigation.
Vonda Covington has been trained in Collaborative Divorce and she’s learned through experience that the best settlements are often derived using the team approach to collaborative law. Once the parties have decided to collaborate, the attorneys put together a team of collaborative professionals to help the parties and their family through the process. The neutral mental health professional helps facilitate communication at the joint settlement meetings. The mental health professional will also meet “offline” with the parties to assist them in developing a parenting plan. The neutral financial professional gathers information and documents, helps put together the inventory and appraisement, and helps develop options for dividing the community estate. Much of the neutral professionals work is done “offline,” rather than in the joint conferences. The neutral professionals attend the joint conferences, too. Vonda has found that using the neutral professionals usually reduces the cost of the case, because the process is more efficient and more effective. The parties may also hire a neutral expert to do things like appraise a business. When an expert is required, the parties agree who to hire and how that expert will be paid, and the parties hire only one expert (as opposed to litigation, in which the parties each hire an expert, costing twice as much).
A collaborative divorce law case has similar anatomy to a litigation case, though the process is vastly different. We first deal with the interim issues – temporary living arrangements, parenting times, child support, who pays what bills, who gets the use of what property (temporary orders). We may even agree on temporary injunctions. We then gather information and documentation (discovery). Next we develop options for settlement. Finally, we choose among our options and tweak our agreements until we have a settlement of all the issues.
One benefit of using the collaborative divorce law process is the built-in ability to “try on” an agreement, especially in parenting issues, to see if it works. Since we have a series of two to three hour settlement conferences, we have the opportunity to revisit our agreements and fine tune them, or chuck them and figure out something else. This has been especially helpful when we are working with scheduling parenting times and parenting responsibilities. After trying it for two weeks, a couple may decide that having dad come to the house each morning to pick up the kids and drive them to school just isn’t working. Dad may want the daily contact with the kids, but he has been late to work five day in the last two weeks. We can discuss what is happening and find solutions.
Once the parties reach an agreement on all the issues, the attorneys draft the closing documents and distribute them to the clients and the other attorney for review and revision. Once all the paperwork is in final form, we usually have one last meeting to sign everything and to answer any final questions the clients may have. Then one or both of the parties go to court to prove up the divorce.
If the parties are not able to settle the case in its entirety, the collaborative team withdraws, and each collaborative divorce attorney refers his or her client to a litigation attorney. The parties can leave the collaborative divorce process with a partial settlement, limiting the issues that remain to be tried, and the “discovery” that has been done goes with the parties. However, the neutral professionals that have helped in the collaborative process are not available as witnesses at the trial.
There is no easy way through a divorce, and collaborative divorce law requires hard work from the parties and the collaborative team. With the right attorneys helping their clients through the process, this is often the path to the best resolution. It is essential that the attorneys have skill as collaborative divorce lawyers, a skill set that is very different from the skills required to litigate. Vonda has the skills, training and temperament that are essential for a collaborative divorce lawyer.
Vonda was one of the first attorneys in Houston to start practicing collaborative divorce law. She was a founding member of the Alliance of Collaborative Law Attorneys in 2001, and she is the founder and current president of Fort Bend Collaborative Professionals, the collaborative divorce law practice group in Fort Bend County. She has been very active in collaborative divorce law since it first came to the Houston area in 2000.
Vonda’s background in psychology and her personality serve her well in practicing collaborative law. In addition, Vonda has been trained in negotiation skills and as a family systems mediator.
For more information on collaborative law, Vonda recommends www.collablawtexas.com.