Lisa Kimmell knew what she wanted from her divorce, starting with a written guarantee that her ex-husband would help pay for their sons’ college expenses, and working through a number of other items.

The 46-year-old Mariettan also knew what she did not want — expensive, time-consuming warfare.

"I could have gone through all that, and it could have been very ugly," she said. "But I decided to try what I hoped would be an easier route."

That route turned out to be collaborative divorce, an alternative that substitutes negotiation for confrontation. It is becoming more popular, in part because more people have discovered it and in part because more professionals are practicing it.

In too many traditional divorce proceedings, each party gets lawyered up and prepares to make war, not love. An attorney becomes a weapon of choice, and the process itself becomes a fight.

Now a growing number of lawyers and other professionals are trying a more constructive path. About 80 lawyers now are members of the Collaborative Law Institute of Georgia, along with 20 financial consultants, nine mediators, and 32 divorce coaches and child specialists.

In the collaborative approach, the goal is more like team-building. Lawyers and clients typically write a contract agreeing to be open and honest and to make their best efforts to settle all issues without going to court.

"It’s weird to say that what we’re trying to do is to improve your family through divorce, but that’s it," said Lauren Alexander, a collaborative lawyer.

"It cuts down on the animosity," said Kimmell. "You’re forced to sit at the table and lay out everything you have. And you’re sitting there talking in front of two virtual strangers, both collaborative attorneys, who are working for you. You have to be more civil."

The team often includes financial planners, who work through all the family’s assets — and liabilities — to work out a fair distribution.

"You don’t have dueling experts, one saying this is what the husband needs and another saying what the wife needs," said Robert Bordett, a certified financial planner and president of the institute’s Georgia branch.

A house might represent security, for example, but be encumbered by a big mortgage. A family’s investments may well be split among ordinary investment accounts and tax-favored retirement accounts. Who gets the tax breaks?

Other consultants could include counselors, who are the clients’ coaches, and child specialists, who work out a parenting plan.

"People are more savvy about what can happen to their kids down the road," said Andra Harris-Martin, a divorce coach and counselor. "They want to know how they can do the right thing for their kids."

"All of the professionals, along with the clients, become problem solvers," said Bordett. "Everyone works to solve the problem. This is the clients’ divorce, not the lawyers.’"

In the last step, lawyers draw up the final divorce paperwork, which is filed jointly.

Statistics are sparse, but a few studies indicate that the overwhelming majority of collaborative cases are settled without going to court. Bordett and others believe a collaborative divorce typically costs a third as much as a litigated case. "That’s money that could go into college savings for the children," he added.

Collaboration is not possible for a lot of families, of course.

"There has got to be a modicum of goodwill left," Alexander said. "If one party is truly vindictive or is hiding assets, you don’t want to be in a collaborative process."

Kimmell believes the key is the spouses’ personalities.

"If you’re very bitter and angry, it’s not going to work," she said. "You have to be flexible, and you have to be willing to listen to the other side. You have to be willing to say, ‘How important is this issue when I really want the other issue?’ To me, it was all give and take."

One potential drawback: The lawyers and other professionals agree at the outset that if negotiations collapse, all of them will drop the case. You can still go to court, but you will have to find another lawyer and start over paying for the services.

SOURCE: Dayton Daily News