One of my colleagues recently wrote a blog for this column about working with our clients as we find them. The same holds true for the professional members of the team. The collective history of the people at a team meeting is vast. We sometimes forget when aggravated by a professional member’s behavior that professionals also come with our own baggage. I ask for your indulgence over the next few blogs as I share a bit of my own.
I am starting in the middle of my story for this first piece. My move to the collaborative process came later in my professional life driven by my personal experience in the divorce arena. I separated from my former husband, “L” in 2005. It took a dear friend and family attorney to push me towards preparing the petition for dissolution and related documents in 2006 on the assumption that L would one day do something to drive me over the edge and I would want the documents filed ASAP. That day came. Fortunately, the documents were ready to go. L was served, and the 14-year drama began. It continues to this day not because I like drama. I am actually drama adverse.
We have three children, their father made a very good living, and he wanted no responsibility. In 2007 we mediated. I was extremely physically ill and emotionally spent because of the divorce and the stress of working full time while having 100% responsibility for our three children, including an elementary school son on the autism spectrum. My attorney and I did the best we could in mediation to protect my children’s future, but my attorney’s primary goal was to get me out of the marriage in one piece. The one issue I thought I had locked in was protection for my youngest child’s future. We built in a continuation of child support past age 18 and high school graduation knowing he would need ongoing support.
By 2011 L owed me almost $60,000 in reimbursements. As CFO of the company for which he worked, the income deduction order was not working for me because he controlled the issuance of the child support checks. He retained my former partner to file documents claiming I alienated the children from him as an end-run around what he thought would be my pursuit of the moneys he owed me. It did not seem to matter that he had made no effort to see or communicate with our children in years. $65,000 in attorney’s fees and 18-months later we settled. I was in no better position than when I started but it was over. The fact that L had now filed four false financial affidavits was too costly to pursue and our legal system appeared to me—a family attorney—to be indifferent.
In 2016 my youngest child was admitted to college early decision. The next day L filed pleadings with the court seeking to terminate child support upon high school graduation claiming my son was no longer on the spectrum as evidenced by his early admission to American University. In a five-minute hearing the judge agreed with him, set the date of termination and advised me my son, then 18 and no longer a minor, could come back in May after graduation and make his own argument before the court as to why he should continue to get child support from his father.
While I was trained as a collaborative attorney six years earlier, I continued to represent clients in litigated divorce matters. I made the decision as I left the court room that day, I would never again litigate a family matter. Putting aside the over $100,000 I had spent through the years litigating with L, putting aside what the litigation had put me through emotionally and physically and by extension, my children, it was clear the courtroom was no place for family related matters to be resolved. There actually was no real resolution benefitting anyone other than the attorneys and, in the end, L who by 2016 had filed five false financial affidavits (I was able to prove it by pulling his employer’s tax returns off Charity Navigator).
It is now almost 2019, L has been fired for alleged misappropriation of his employer’s assets, my son’s health insurance was terminated (L gave me no notice) and I am back reviewing the last of three MSA’s to see what remedy I have regarding my son’s medical expenses. While mine was not a case for the collaborative process, clearly litigation was not beneficial either. If I have to weigh the two alternatives I would advocate every time for our clients to choose collaborative. Getting caught in the web of litigation is just that—a terrible web from which one may not recover. Clearly, when I sit with a potential client or in a team meeting, this experience is uppermost in my mind as I guide clients through what I believe to be a process that allows families the opportunity to remain intact, maintain dignity and preserve assets for the benefit of their own futures.