In this story, Jeanne Coleman’s client shares her experience in achieving a collaborative divorce, a process designed to promote fairness for both parties and avoid litigation.
My ex-husband is the one who initiated the divorce. To say I was shocked is an understatement. Our 13 years of marriage had always been up and down with a lot of fighting. But I was still committed to making it work and devastated when he wanted out.
He told me he wanted to divorce through the collaborative process, something I’d not heard of. After some research, I saw that this method of divorce made sense. Collaborative divorce is designed to avoid fighting in court, which can get ugly. My ex-husband had already experienced a contentious divorce in a prior marriage. I don’t think he wanted that again. I didn’t want to go through a “divorce from hell” either and agreed to pursue the collaborative route.
In collaborative divorce, a team works together to help spouses dissolve their marriage respectfully and fairly. The team includes a mental health specialist and an accountant. These professionals are neutral, meaning they don’t take sides. Each spouse has their own attorney who are part of the team. However, the attorneys act more like guides, presenting options that can lead to their client’s goals. A child specialist is on board, too, for those spouses with minor children. My ex-husband and I didn’t have children, so this specialty wasn’t needed.
If I had to describe the difference between litigation and collaborative divorce, I’d say that litigation is more like getting the best divorce settlement you can, with your spouse as adversary. Collaborative divorce is getting to an end result that is fair for both parties. It’s treating each other with respect and being honest. You realize pretty quickly that collaborative divorce is not about fighting.
That’s not to say the divorce was easy for me. Far from it! To add to the pain, less than a week after my ex-husband said he wanted to divorce, I learned he’d been having an affair. I was even more devastated — and really angry! Two things I’d always believed: He would never lie to me and he would stick it out to make our marriage work. Instead, I now knew he had a girlfriend and been thinking about divorce for a long time.
Despite my whirlwind of feelings, I was determined to control my anger and was still willing to go through the collaborative process. We’d had a bad fight about his affair, but I didn’t want to turn it into an even uglier court battle.
I reached out to colleagues for recommendations for divorce attorneys and got two names. One was Jeanne Coleman, who I chose after a consultation. She is one of the leading divorce attorneys in the area. And I just felt more comfortable working with a female lawyer, especially when I had been betrayed by my husband.
I learned there is truly a process in collaborative divorce and Jeanne was by my side all the way.
First, my ex-husband and I met separately with the team’s mental health specialist. She needed to hear each of our stories to create profiles that would be shared with the other professional team members. She asked a lot of questions about the marriage and how we were doing. How was I doing? I was a wreck and sobbed through the whole session. My whole world had come crashing down. It felt like emotional PTSD.
Over the next six months, we had about six meetings with the collaborative team. The first meeting was to set goals. We had to sign a 10-page agreement with all the ground rules, such as treating each other with respect and being honest and transparent. If you can’t follow the rules, the attorneys can fire you.
Before the first team meeting, the accountant had analyzed all our financial information and assets. We both had our own businesses, but my ex-husband made a lot more money.
At that first meeting, I was scared to death. So, the therapist sat on one side of me and Jeanne sat on the other, which was comforting. We talked about my goals and my husband’s goals, which were recorded on a flip chart. My goals were to be able to support myself and afford health insurance. Financial security was important to me. I had entered the marriage financially strong, having had a good job and savings. I wanted to leave the marriage in good financial shape, maintaining my standard of living until I could get back on my feet.
I can’t say enough good things about the collaborative divorce process but that doesn’t mean things didn’t get worse, emotionally, before they got better. At one meeting, my ex-husband insisted my jewelry be appraised and listed as marital assets. The jewelry pieces were gifts from him, and I had never imagined they would be part of a divorce settlement. I was reduced to tears and had to ask for a meeting break, which we were allowed to do whenever needed.
During our meetings, the jewelry became part of a back and forth offer. Both of our businesses needed to be valued and there were other assets to consider. My ex-husband was slow in agreeing to terms related to alimony, but in the end, I was very happy with the outcome and believed he was happy.
Although we had some clashes between collaborative meetings, we never fought in the meetings and were always respectful, other than a few cross words.
I felt like I was in a safe place in those meetings. In collaborative divorce you feel heard. You get a chance to talk and there are all these people sitting around the table – the collaborative team – who are really listening to what you are saying.
I entered the process feeling very fragile, tremendously scared, emotional, grief stricken, and angry. I came out of it feeling stronger, supported, and much more secure, with a good divorce settlement that left me whole and ready for a better future.
I can’t say enough good things about Jeanne. I will forever be grateful to her. During our first consultation call, I sobbed through most of it. She told me the “bird by bird” story, which has a takeaway of facing a challenging situation one step at a time. Honest and realistic, Jeanne was supportive, accessible, and empathetic, and had a way of helping me just when I needed it. And I liked that her firm is small and nimble.
Once my husband had signed the settlement agreement, Jeanne accompanied me to the court hearing, a last step where the divorce is finalized. The hearing didn’t take long and was the only time a judge had to be involved.
It’s true that I did feel profound grief from the end of my marriage. But after working through the grief, I can now say I’m feeling tremendous joy and happiness. I did love my ex-husband, but it was not a happy marriage. I had lost myself. Now I’m embracing a life that is authentic and happy — something I once couldn’t have imagined.
Jeanne Coleman is dedicated to helping her clients achieve divorces that lead to a better future. For more information about collaborative divorce, or to schedule a free 20-minute consultation, call 813-253-2820. Please note that a consultation does not establish an attorney-client relationship.