Divorce Over Easy

Collaborative divorce promises to be kinder, faster, cheaper. But does it really work?

In the Houston area there are several collaborative groups that constitute the Gulf Coast Collaborative Law Network, which serves as the umbrella group for interested attorneys from Harris, Galveston, Fort Bend and Montgomery counties. The network comprises about 130 members. While there is no formal certification process for attorneys who want to practice the method, most groups require members to have a certain amount of experience as well as at least one seminar in collaboration.

On the national level, the American Bar Association has yet to issue a policy statement on the practice; however, the organization has held seminars on the topic at recent conventions.

Collaborative attorneys across the country were pleasantly surprised when Texas became the first state to codify collaborative law. After all, the Lone Star State has never exactly been San Francisco.

Social workers Judith Miller (seated) and Sondra Kaplan say collaborative divorce is often less emotionally scarring for children than traditional divorce.
Monica Fuentes
Social workers Judith Miller (seated) and Sondra Kaplan say collaborative divorce is often less emotionally scarring for children than traditional divorce.

"It's a very progressive move, and we're not normally viewed as a very progressive state," says Barbara Runge, board member of the American Academy of Matrimonial Attorneys and a Houston family law attorney for 28 years. Texas is one of a handful of states that still allow child custody to be decided by a jury trial, and it wasn't until 1997 that the Texas legislature ruled the court could issue mandated alimony for couples that had been married for at least ten years (although the law refers to the support as "maintenance," not alimony).

Longtime Houston family lawyer Harry Tindall was instrumental in getting the statute passed. A self-proclaimed "dean of this business," Tindall has seen it all, from clients who surreptitiously placed cameras in hotel rooms to catch spouses cheating, to parents who abused their own children. He remembers the days before no-fault divorce when "scaredy-cat Yankees" would take the so-called Divorce Special, a daily American Airlines flight from New York to El Paso. Attorneys would meet people getting off the plane in Texas and drive them across the border to Juárez for a quick Mexican divorce that often left their spouses in the lurch both emotionally and financially. But he admits most people splitting up don't start out trying to get revenge or shortchange their spouse.

"They're not all crooks and they're not all cheats," he says. "And many of the marriages involve children. There's got to be a way for couples to untie the knot in a way that's less confrontational, less harmful."

The statute, says Tindall, gives the process credibility. But most important, say supporters, it keeps the divorce off the "rocket docket." The court system, eager to keep the backlog of cases to a minimum, tries to resolve divorce cases in six months to a year, although they often take much longer (in 2001 roughly 20,000 people filed for divorce in Harris County).

"In a traditional divorce you get a notice in the mail that your case is set for trial in October, and it's August, so you've got to start running around getting your discovery done and your depositions for certain deadlines, even if the case doesn't end up going to trial," says Tindall.

But the statute allows collaborative attorneys up to two years to resolve a case; if they haven't reached an agreement by then, they can file for an extension. And while collaborative cases often resolve sooner than traditional ones, the two-year time period allows for some breathing room.

Collaborative law supporters acknowledge the method isn't for everyone. Tindall estimates it might work for only a quarter of divorcing couples. For some, collaboration isn't even necessary. An uncontested divorce between two people who have no children and no shared property can often be done quickly and for as little as $1,000.

Most attorneys believe marriages that involve issues of domestic, sexual or drug abuse are not good candidates for collaboration. Some lawyers think infidelity disqualifies a couple, although several attorneys in Houston have worked successfully with couples where one or both partners have had an affair.

Even with a couple like Michael and Beth who seem willing to work together, the process can still be difficult. Collaborative or not, a divorce is still a divorce.

"Believe me, we had our words," says one woman of her former husband. The couple successfully went through the process after a 12-year marriage and two children. "We had our fights, and there have been times when he hated me and I hated him," she adds. But the collaborative process appealed to them. "On an emotional level, it just seemed more civil. I can't really explain how we were able to do it. I don't know. I guess it was the grace of God, maybe."

Cathy (not her real name), a Houston-area therapist whose parents divorced in the mid-1970s when she was 13, says she understands the importance of keeping the well-being of the kids at the forefront of any divorce. After her parents decided to separate, the process deteriorated into a long, contentious trial, and a jury eventually decided the custody of Cathy and her siblings. Cathy even had to testify about which parent she wanted to live with.

"It was like a drama on television," remembers Cathy, who says the jury decided to send three of the children to live with their father and the remaining three to their mother. When not testifying, Cathy says, she spent most of the trial alone on a bench outside the courtroom.

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