Top Nine Collaborative Divorce Tips for Success

By Shawn Weber, CA State Bar Certified Family Law Specialist
Past President, Collaborative Family Law Group of San Diego
Board Member of Collaborative Practice California

My life as a family law attorney changed with my first Collaborative Practice case. I was moved by the idea of leaving the adversarial process that I found so harmful to families and children and engaging in the solutions-oriented, mutual and respectful collaborative model for families transitioning through the divorce process. I had seen too many situations in court where I felt we were doing more harm than good. While litigation is necessary for some, Collaborative Practice is a powerful tool to reduce the serious pain and collateral damage, from which families suffer in court.

In a collaborative divorce, both parties retain specially trained attorneys. Other professionals, including coaches, financial specialists, therapists and child specialists, are called upon to join the team and offer their unique expertise.

An important distinction of collaborative divorce is the agreement that the attorneys and other experts make to resign from the case if it veers toward litigation. This ensures that all who are involved are committed to a nonadversarial resolution of the case.  I love that it frees me, the attorney, from the temptation to posture and spin and moves me into a mode where I am working with the other professionals across varied disciplines to find solutions.

Since my first Collaborative Divorce case, I have learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t work.  Following are my top nine tips for success in a collaborative divorce.

1. Use a full team model.  It can seem daunting to think of adding multiple professionals to one’s divorce case. A full collaborative divorce team would be a coach for each party, two attorneys, a child specialist and a financial specialist. There is a temptation to think, “I don’t need all of these people.” Sometimes people fear that having a full team is cost prohibitive.

In reality, the different professionals bring efficiency through specialization. In other words, you aren’t paying an attorney at his higher rate to do mental health work that he is less qualified to do. Rather, you pay a mental health professional to provide coaching services with much greater skill. Use a qualified and well-trained accountant or financial planner for financial work. Specialization gives you a better product more efficiently obtained.

The shortcut of only using attorneys may seem cheaper or less complicated in the short-run. But in the long run costly mistakes can be made. The coaches and child specialists are excellent in helping parties and parents focus on the important things in the divorce process rather than on the “emotional noise” that is ever present in every family law case. Financial specialists are adept at watching for costly tax planning mistakes.  They do a tremendous job of making complex financial issues more accessible. Going into a collaborative case with only part of a team is like mountain climbing with only half of your gear. You might be able to get to the top of the mountain, but it will take longer and be a more miserable journey. You might not make it at all.  So, be sure to have all the tools available.

Once you have your team in place, make sure you use your team members. Use the coaches to help when things are emotional. Use the financial specialists to figure out the money. Use the child specialist to make sure that your kids are OK. Don’t set up the team and then not use it. It’s like filling up a tool box with a full socket set, but only using one wrench.

See “Collaborative Practice Saves Money” by attorney Sandra Joan Morris.

2. Make sure that you are working hard. Getting divorced is very hard work.  I advise my clients that they will work harder than they ever have at anything in their lives.  Divorce is complicated and extraordinarily emotional work. You will get a lot of homework to complete between collaborative meetings. This may involve producing financial records or learning how to work out parenting disagreements with the other parent. Just sitting in a room and trying to be constructive with a spouse you are divorcing can be exhausting both emotionally and physically.

I can predict failure in a collaborative process when I am working harder to settle the case than my client. There should be no illusions. A lot will be asked of you. Don’t expect your team of professionals (as capable as they are) to do all the work for you. Ask often what you can do to move the ball down the field.

Do your homework

3. Get your homework done on time (maybe even early). You will be given assignments between sessions like gathering financial data, preparing forms or working with your children. If the homework required for a scheduled meeting hasn’t been done, the meeting will be a waste. Your divorce will take longer. If you get your tasks completed on time, or even early, the meetings will go smoothly and your case will likely conclude on time.

4. Disclose Everything.  That we are trying to be more informal and friendly does not relieve you of the responsibility to be completely truthful and open. The legal requirements for disclosure remain whether the case is collaborative or litigated. That means you disclose everything. That’s EVERYTHING.

Trust is the great lubricant of settlement. Collaborative practice relies on mutual trust and consensual resolution making openness essential. Completing the financial disclosures on time enables better trust. Without trust and openness, you probably won’t be able to settle and you will end up in court. Besides, the law is very clear that disclosure is required. Suffice it to say that the California Courts have broad power to punish a non-disclosing party. (For a primer on California’s strict disclosure rules, click here.)

5. Be patient.  You will not solve every issue in your first meeting. The first several meetings often only set the stage for settlement later. There is a reason for this.  Information needs to be gathered. Emotions need to be controlled. Children’s concerns need to be addressed. Divorces are complicated with many legal issues and difficult emotions. If you are patient, stick to it and rely on your team, your chances of success increase.

6. Relax and don’t panic. Legal disputes are frightening. Legal disputes about your family are paralyzing. Sometimes individuals succumb to “fight or flight,” that tremendous adrenaline response that saved our ancestors from being eaten by the saber tooth tiger. That’s great when you are trying not to be eaten. It’s not so great when aiming for a peaceful settlement.

When things get difficult, it’s easy to panic and run to court. Instead, engage your team when things get difficult. A skilled collaborative team can help you find a solution to a difficulty much faster and more creatively than court ever could.

See “The Emotional Roller Coaster of Divorce” by Pauline H. Tesler, M.A., J.D., & Peggy Thompson, Ph.D.

7. Talk Less. Listen More. To find a settlement, it will be important to hear and understand what your spouse is saying and feeling. You should get your story out.  But don’t do it at the expense of missing your spouse’s point of view. Looking at the world from your spouse’s point of view will help you find a solution that works for both of you.

Importantly, don’t forget to listen to your professional team. They have been through a lot more divorces than you and will have suggestions that you may not think of on your own. Take time to hear and internalize what is being said.


8. Don’t think win or lose. Focus on solutions.  The terms “justice” and “fairness” mean different things for different people. You don’t have to win everything. Divorce doesn’t need to be a competition. Rather, divorce presents problems for which there are solutions. The challenge is to find the solutions.

Instead of “fairness” or “winning,”  try to make good business decisions. Settling your case is its own victory. Taking the decision away from a judge and keeping it with the parties is empowering. Ending conflict is liberating.

9. Have an open mind.  It’s easy to get locked into preconceived notions. In all collaborative practice cases, time is spent brainstorming to find creative solutions.  In brain storming, there are no bad ideas. It’s a great way to find many possible and more creative options.

One old parable involves two women fighting over an orange. Foolishly, the two women simply cut the orange in half to settle their dispute without considering what each wanted from the orange. This was a poor solution as it failed to address each woman’s real interests. One woman wanted to use the zest while the other wanted the pulp for juicing. Had they sought a solution that truly addressed their needs rather than taking the most obvious option, they would have found a better way.

Collaborative Practice takes openness, hard work and a good team. Collaborative Practice helps people move forward with dignity. The strategies listed above can help you to successfully settle in a respectful and dignified process. Here are some links with more information about collaborative practice:

Why I absolutely love Collaborative Divorce

Collaborative Family Law Group of San Diego

Collaborative Practice California (CPCAL)




When Advice Hurts, Not Helps During a Divorce

by Mel Mackler, MA, LMFT
Coaching and Education for an Emotionally Healthy Divorce

In the face of adversity, we all can use support and, sometimes, advice from friends and family that we trust and are close to us.  These two camps are always ready to come to our aid and defense when we are in stress or in anxiety.  This can be especially true when someone is going through a family break-up due to a divorce.

Divorce anxiety can fuel a sense of being in danger.  We are apt to scurry to an attorney for safety and protection before we understand the kind of divorce process the attorney practices, and before we understand which form of divorce process suits our family best.  There is a second area of vulnerability you need to be alert to: accepting advice and information from friends and family.

While emotional support and a good ear to vent into are two worthwhile supports to anyone going through adversity, it is important to be aware that advice coming from friends and family members who love us is going to be biased.  These people want to give us their best, but often give advice that is not in our family’s best interest.  Loved ones want to back us up, give us strength to fight back and to protect our children and our family’s assets.  Your fear can fuel their anxiety, and that can lead to impulsive and protective advice from your loved ones—advice that isn’t necessarily helpful.

Friends and family often do not clearly understand the method of divorce being used to achieve a cooperative settlement.  Many people have not heard of a collaborative divorce.  To many people, divorce is simply divorce—a confrontive process that puts one party at the advantage of the other. They will not understand that you have made a decision to work cooperatively with your spouse or partner and to minimize dissension.

If your decision has been to work cooperatively with your spouse or partner, then the advice from your supporters might cause you to move in a direction opposite from your goal.  Yet, in a moment of anger or anguish, it isn’t unusual for someone to grasp the advice he or she received and follow through.

It’s at these times that you should caution yourself.  Contact your attorney, your divorce coach or your therapist.  Discuss your fears, and the advice that your support team gave you.  Ask one of your professionals for his or her advice about following through with the suggestions your support team has made.  While this consultation may cost you a few dollars, it may save you a great deal more if the advice from your friends is inappropriate to your goals for your divorce.

It’s always so easy to react; and sometimes you’re going to feel it is imperative to react immediately.  Taking several deep breaths, then using your brain and your professional team before you decide what to do can be far more beneficial for the long haul.  Play it smart, not impulsively.

Four Tips for Making Divorce Easier on You and Your Family

by Myra Chack Fleischer, CLF-S, Fleischer & Associates

Making the decision to get divorced is never easy. If you have been there, done that, no matter when you file you know it can be consuming and is usually the result of a thought processing lasting weeks, months, even years. If there are children involved, it is even more gut wrenching.

This is why our group so strongly recommends the collaborative divorce process to mitigate the impact to your children and your family as a whole.

But once you have crossed that bridge in your mind, heart and soul, now is the time to be ruthlessly practical. Even if you choose collaborative divorce, you must also prepare yourself and your children. This is not selfish. This is healthy, this is smart and this is in your long-term best interests.

It is natural to feel overwhelmed, and there is a lot to do. As a family law attorney with experience representing hundred and hundreds of divorcing clients, there are some priorities you need to address BEFORE you break the bad news, hire an attorney, file any paperwork, or decide to avoid the court system entirely. This advice applies equally to men and women, straight or gay.

Gavel and Wedding Rings

  •  Make sure you get copies of all your financial records.

This includes bank statements, investment and retirement accounts, credit cards, loans and any other debts. You will also be able to quickly tell and later prove if there are significant changes or movement of assets, and this may help you make the decision about whether collaborative divorce is right for you.

  • Make sure you have a source of funds if you do not work outside the home.

Create a financial strategy with your attorney or a divorce financial planner before any formal filing for divorce.

  • Make sure you disclose anything damaging about you and your situation to your attorney.

The last person you want to be blindsided by any misbehavior or skeletons in your closet is your attorney. He or she cannot help you to mitigate the impact if he or she knows nothing about it. Sure, it can be some embarrassing stuff to admit to extramarital affairs, criminal acts, struggles with your physical or mental health, or tweeting racy photos.

But believe me, divorce attorneys, divorce financial planners and divorce coaches have heard it all and then some. We are not shockable, and we will not think less of you. Professionals involved with divorce proceedings are committed to confidentiality. Most of it can be handled. It’s entirely possible that by getting these issues acknowledged and out of the way, the healing process can begin and a collaborative divorce may be possible. But if not, it’s better to learn this early in the divorce process.

  • Listen to professional advice.

If your attorney, divorce financial planner or divorce coach tells you something or asks you to do something, there is a reason for it. Usually it is to protect your interests and make things easier (and maybe less costly) for you and your family in the long run. We know how to engage the legal system to your best advantage, and we have plenty of experience that tells us what works and what does not work. Don’t ruin the good counsel you are getting by ignoring it.



Gift Giving: Can You Take Out the Emotion and Leave the Joy?

CFLG San Diego member Justin Reckers, CFP®, CDFATM, AIF®, managing director at Pacific Divorce Management, was recently interviewed for a story about advising financial clients about how to keep holiday spending under control. While Justin doesn’t specifically address divorced families, it’s not uncommon for divorced parents to try and make it up to their children by giving lavish gifts that they really cannot afford. This is great advice for them, and for anyone tempted to spend beyond his or her means.

Read the article here.