This article by Laura Ayo in the December issue of the Greater Knoxville Business Journal may be of interest.
Collaborative Divorce an Emerging Local Practice
Couples ending their marriages don’t have to fight in court over assets, finances or child custody thanks to the recent growth of collaborative divorce professionals in Knoxville.
“I think the idea of collaborative divorce in Knoxville is in its infancy,” says K.O. Herston, a family law mediator and attorney. “The main challenge I see is people aren’t aware of it as an option, and because of that, they don’t know to seek it out. It’s up to lawyers to educate their clients that it is an option.”
Herston is one of a handful of attorneys, mediators, financial advisers and other professionals in Knoxville who have become trained to guide separating couples through the collaborative divorce process.
“I got trained to be a collaborative divorce attorney in 2007 in North Carolina,” says attorney Jackie Kittrell, executive director of the nonprofit Community Mediation Center. “There was no training in Tennessee. It wasn’t until 2009 that there was training for Tennessee lawyers.”
Dr. Beth Cooper, a family mediator in private practice in Knoxville, organized an International Academy of Collaborative Practitioners standards training session in Knoxville in 2013 that about 14 attorneys attended.
“When you come into contact with people who are going through divorce and see how awful it is and the effect on the kids, you know something better can happen,” Cooper says. “Collaborative divorce is another alternative.”
In a collaborative divorce, the husband and wife each hires an attorney — trained in the method — and sign a four-way agreement promising to negotiate the terms of their divorce in an honest, open, non-adversarial manner outside a courtroom.
“It differs from the traditional divorce process, which starts off with both sides getting separate lawyers and engaging in an adversarial process,” Herston says. “The goal (of collaborative divorce) at the outset is to try to reach an agreement. When you hire a divorce attorney, the objective is not to always obtain an agreement. This begins the process with a different goal.”
It also differs from a traditional divorce in that other professionals, such as financial advisers, real estate appraisers and mental health specialists, are hired jointly as needed to offer neutral expertise.
“That way you don’t have dueling experts trying to prove a point,” says Bill Morris, a financial advisor with Morris Financial Group who became a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst (CDFA) through the Institute for Divorce Financial Analysts last year. “It brings all the elements to the table and everyone is on the same level playing field.”
Professionals like Morris, called financial neutrals, evaluate the situation of the divorcing couple and present options, but the couple decides which option works best for their circumstances, he says.
“We are prohibited from making recommendations,” he adds.
Collaborative divorce isn’t for everyone, but hopes are more couples will seek it as an option because it allows families to have more control over the process since a third-party judge isn’t making the decisions that affect the division of assets or child custody.
“Every single person I’ve talked to who has been through the divorce process feels out of control,” Kittrell says. “They’re hiring people at great expense to go fight for them, but they don’t always know what’s happening or how to stop it or adjust it.”
Likewise, experts say relationships fare better and children are better served when couples take an agreeable parental approach to what is considered one of the most stressful situations a family can endure.
“It really does set a good model for those children and lets those children see their parents do something difficult with a lot of grace,” Kittrell says.
Collaborative divorce also has the benefit of being more cost effective, timely and private since the matter stays out of a courtroom and the parties set their own timetable, experts say.
If, at any time during the process, either side decides they want to go to court, both sides withdraw from the process and seek new attorneys to bring their case before a judge.
“The collaborative approach doesn’t preclude litigation,” Herston says. “It is always there as a backstop option.”
While the Tennessee Bar Association and local bar associations across the state have been working to further educate their members about collaborative law, Cooper recently launched a website, www.knoxvillecollaborativedivorce.com, to provide more information about it.
She is also organizing a training session for early March for financial advisers, therapists and other professionals interested in learning more about collaborative divorce.
“Here, locally, we are in the very early stages,” Herston says. “But the more lawyers we get involved and the more financial neutrals and other professionals who get involved, the more it’s going to take place.”
Information provided by K.O. Herston: Knoxville, Tennessee Divorce, Matrimonial and Family Law Attorney.