Every collaborative case offers its own unique challenges. Some of the more serious problems you will face include family violence, emotional secrets, addiction, mental health issues, shadow advisors, no assets and lots of debts, relocation, and an impasse.
Family Violence. There are various types of family violence, including physical, emotional or sexual abuse, and abuse of children. Collaborative attorneys have an ethical duty to screen for family violence and take steps to ensure their client’s safety. Effective steps include adding a mental health professional to the team who is trained to deal with family violence, putting the clients in different rooms, asking the clients to arrive and leave at different times, and agreeing to a temporary restraining order.
Emotional Secrets. A collaborative divorce requires full disclosure, so it’s not unusual to uncover an explosive secret during the process. The attorneys must be prepared to handle the issue in a sensitive way. Sometimes, one spouse has hidden money or must disclose a sexual secret. You might think extra money would be good news, but sometimes the other spouse feels betrayed and becomes angry. Sexual secrets, such as a homosexual spouse who wants to come out of the closet, or a secret affair can pose super sensitive issues. The best way to handle these difficult emotional problems is for the attorneys to discuss them with their clients and find out how they want to handle disclosure and resolution of the issue.
Addiction. Sometimes substance abuse is difficult to detect, but more often, the marriage is chaotic because one spouse is abusing alcohol or drugs. Substance abusers usually deny they have a problem and refuse to seek treatment until it’s too late. It’s important to negotiate a drug or alcohol testing program as part of any visitation schedule to ensure the safety of children. Sometimes, a licensed chemical dependency counselor needs to be added to the team to handle the addicted spouse.
Mental Health Issues. There are many different mental illness, and each type can produce unique collaborative divorce challenges. Often, it’s helpful to recommend that the mentally ill spouse seek individual counseling. If he or she refuses, try to handle the collaborative divorce in the most compassionate way possible.
Shadow Advisors. A shadow advisor is someone close to a client who is giving them conflicting advice. For example, a controlling parent may pay the bills and want to call the shots. The major problem with shadow advisors is that they don’t know the entire situation so they give unhelpful advice. One solution is to discuss the shadow advisor with the client and ask him or her to stop listening. Alternatively, invite the advisor to the table as a participant so they understand the entire case.
No Assets and Lots of Debts. This difficult situation usually occurs because the couple overspent. Occasionally, one partner has inherited community property and they have spent all their income on ordinary living expenses. Where there is a large inherited estate, the other spouse often looks to his or her rich spouse for support until educated or trained to hold a job. When there are no assets in the estate, both spouses need to take some of the debt and get on a budget to dig themselves out of the financial hole. The attorneys must manage expectations and allocate the debt according to the ration of incomes. A strong, patient financial professional is helpful in this situation to establish budgets and teach financial planning.
Relocation. Relocation cases are difficult because there is usually a winner who is allowed to move and a loser who ends up far away from his or her children. The other losers are the children who can’t see one parent. One solution is for the other spouse to relocate. Alternatively, the parent may agree to remain close in return for an increase in child support to offset the lost employment opportunity. Another solution is to increase visitations times during vacations and summer.
Impasse. Sometimes an issue is so difficult to resolve that the parties reach an impasse. There are two ways around this problem. One is to brainstorm creative options that may turn the impasse into a win-win resolution. The other solution is to hire a mediator and take the single issue to him or her for resolution.
Each collaborative case has its own unique challenges. The more difficult problems you face in a collaborative cases include family violence where the attorney must assess and mitigate the problem, sexual or financial secrets that may derail the negotiations, substance abuse and the issue of safety for the children, mental health issues that can produce high-conflict cases and may require outside individual counseling, shadow advisors who are giving conflicting advice to one or both clients, couples with no assets and lots of debts, relocation issues where one party wants to move the children away from the other parent, and an impasse that may be resolved by either creative brainstorming or collaborative mediation.