Expanding the Pie So There’s More for Both

I didn’t need to sell my client, “Laura,” on the benefits of the Collaborative approach to divorce. A brief explanation of the process and how it could benefit Laura and her soon-to-be ex-husband, “Ken,” was all it took. So I sent a letter to Ken explaining the Collaborative process and included with it a brochure that explained Collaborative law in greater detail as well as a list of Collaborative attorneys with whom he could consult to determine if the process would work for him.  (I have changed the clients’ real names to protect their privacy.)

I advise my clients to never try to sell the Collaborative process to a soon-to-be ex-spouse themselves, since the inherent emotions, anxieties, suspicions and fears that come with divorce may cause the effort to backfire. But when my requests to Ken to investigate the Collaborative approach failed, I was forced to file a formal complaint in court for a traditional divorce, meaning Ken was served with divorce papers. At that point, he decided to investigate the Collaborative approach and eventually obtained his own Collaborative attorney. In Pennsylvania, you can convert a traditional divorce proceeding to the Collaborative approach without any court procedures.

Laura and Ken each prepared their own needs analysis at the beginning of the process to outline what they wanted to achieve at the end of their Collaborative divorce. The private, negotiated settlement they hoped for would be customized to their needs and desires without putting the decisions into the hands of the court. It would still be hard to acknowledge the end of their marriage, but they hoped to lessen the pain by working together to reach a fair settlement. Even in Collaborative divorces, there are still conflicts, still emotions. But the goal is to manage those so we don’t all end up with a nasty hangover.

In Laura and Ken’s case, one of the needs and interests Ken identified was his desire to retire early to pursue his lifelong hobbies. Ken’s dad died soon after retirement and was never able to enjoy the hard earned (and saved) fruits of his labor. It was a fate Ken hoped to avoid but with divorce pending, he feared his assets would be diluted, making early retirement impossible.

Ken worked for a large, national company that I knew, based on previous experience, had a defined benefit pension plan. Ken was forthright in disclosing his 401K plan and stock options but did not think he had a defined benefit pension. I respectfully asked Ken to call his HR department to inquire and sure enough, he had one.

By being willing to make the call, Ken was able to “expand the pie” for both himself and Laura by identifying additional assets that would be available to both of them in retirement. When he made that call and learned about that pension plan he didn’t know existed, there was a tonal shift in the room, as Ken realized that his divorce would not derail his dreams of early retirement. It’s an example of why I say it is a privilege to serve people through Collaborative practice. I think we all leave with a sense that we did it, and we did it with grace.

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