Why Work to Reach an Agreement?

I can think of a few reasons to focus your time, money and energy on reaching an agreement to resolve your divorce, support, custody or other family law matter or estate administration conflict. The first three reasons are your time, money and energy and how important those resources are to you. The second three reasons are your children, your privacy and your health. They are not necessarily listed in order of importance and this is definitely not a comprehensive list of reasons. I’m sure this is not the only blog post I’ve written or will write about the benefits of working to resolve conflicts by agreement.

Do you value your time, money and energy? In my experience, most people hate feeling that they wasted their time, money or energy. Working toward reaching an agreement to resolve conflicts can be the best use of your time, money and energy. Compare the litigation process, which is designed to have divorcing spouses or other parties take a position, dig in and fight as hard as possible to convince the judge, divorce master or other decision maker that they are right and their spouse is wrong, to the alternative dispute resolution methods such as mediation or the collaborative process, where spouses mutually work toward an overall agreement privately, therefore avoiding the entire court process. It is difficult to appreciate the amount of time, energy and money involved in the discovery, petitions, motions, other filings, pretrial conferences, settlement conferences, court hearings, etc. required for the court process unless you have actually experienced it first-hand. As an attorney, my first-hand experience with the litigation process has influenced the way I practice law and is a source of my encouragement for clients to use alternative dispute resolution methods.

Do you value your children? Your privacy? Your health? Will your children be better off seeing their parents engaged in an adversarial litigation process, striving to prove that each of them is right and the other wrong? Children know what’s happening in a family without their parents sitting down and explaining it to them. They also have their parents as their primary role models – for better or for worse. Would it bother you to have a public record consisting of court filings alleging everything under the sun between you and your spouse? Are you eager to air all of your dirty laundry in an on-line court docket? Last, but not least, how do you think the stress of litigation affects your physical and mental health?

If you live or work in the central Pennsylvania area, including Carlisle, Harrisburg, Hershey and surrounding communities and would like to discuss using alternative dispute resolution methods to reach agreements or any other family law or estate planning or administration issue, please contact me.

Divorce & Parenting Arrangements

Most parents experiencing a divorce tell me that their primary concern is their children’s best interests. And most of the time I believe them. However, that doesn’t mean their children’s best interests are always automatically foremost in their minds when they’re negotiating a resolution to their divorce. Part of my job is to remind my clients to consider what is most important for their children, which they told me was their primary concern, when making those decisions. I focus on at least two different types of parenting decisions – 1) a parenting schedule and 2) financial arrangements.

 

Parenting schedules can be individualized for families, if parents are making the decisions themselves. I strongly advise my clients to make their parenting arrangements by mutual agreement privately, respectfully and with a focus on what’s best for their children. Both parents will almost always have the opportunity to be involved in parenting decisions for their children (considered legal custody). The actual schedule of when children spend time with each parent can vary greatly (considered physical custody). Parents commonly consider their work schedules, school schedules, the distance between their homes, children’s activities and lots of other factors to create this agreement.

 

Financial arrangements include division of assets and liabilities and how to meet the expenses of two households instead of one. How are parents going to meet their children’s financial needs after a separation or divorce? You can sit down and look at your expenses and figure out how best to provide for everyone, which is my strong recommendation. Or you can have the folks at the domestic relations office decide that for you. Personally, I would not want someone else deciding the financial arrangements for my family.

 

You and your family are best served by making a conscious decision to work out parenting arrangements and financial arrangements privately and by agreement instead of having those decisions dictated by someone else. It may be more work and take more energy and self-responsibility to make these decisions yourself, but nobody said that being a grown-up (let alone a parent) is easy. You and your spouse are your children’s most important role models, whether they acknowledge it or not. The way you go about resolving these parenting questions and the way you treat each other during the process are setting examples for your children.

 

If you live or work in central Pennsylvania, including Harrisburg, Hershey, Carlisle and surrounding communities, and would like to discuss parenting arrangements or any other family law issue, please contact me.

Alternative Dispute Resolution Methods

“Alternative” refers to alternatives to litigation (the court process). If you need to resolve a conflict, but don’t want to go through the court process (I advise avoiding court if possible!) then you have alternatives to consider. I strongly recommend alternative dispute resolution methods to my clients for divorce and other family law conflicts. This is not an all-inclusive list, but you can consider the following: 1) sit down and reach an agreement on your own; 2) mediation; 3) collaborative law; and 4) arbitration.

Reaching an agreement on your own can save a lot of time and money, but it is not realistic for most divorcing couples because they are unable to effectively communicate. It can also be legally hazardous. It’s great if divorcing spouses can communicate effectively and address dividing their assets and debts, providing financial support and making parenting arrangements (custody) privately. Even if no attorneys or other third persons are involved in the negotiations, both spouses should get independent legal advice before signing any agreement. I have worked with divorce clients who entered into an agreement prepared on their own or downloaded from the internet (Bad Idea!) that ended up not saying what they wanted it to say or thought it said. It is more costly and time-consuming to challenge an agreement afterwards than it is to do it right the first time.

Mediation is a great way to have a neutral third person (the mediator) help spouses have the difficult conversations necessary to resolve their divorce and related financial and parenting issues. There are high quality mediators available in central Pennsylvania, including Carlisle, Harrisburg, Hershey and surrounding areas. I conduct private divorce and other family law mediations and also recommend mediation as an alternative for my divorce clients. Both spouses should be represented by attorneys in the mediation process to get private legal advice.

Collaborative law is an organized, effective process designed to help spouses resolve their divorce and related financial and parenting conflicts in a private, respectful manner. Clients and their collaboratively trained attorneys meet with an agreed-upon agenda to systematically make decisions based on their interests and concerns. I am collaboratively trained and encourage my clients to use the collaborative process if both spouses are interested in a mutually acceptable divorce resolution. Central Pennsylvania, including Carlisle, Harrisburg, Hershey and surrounding areas, has a thriving community of collaboratively trained attorneys.

Arbitration is a private litigation process, where the spouses choose the decision-maker and present their respective sides of the divorce conflict to him or her through their lawyers. Arbitration is often used in conjunction with mediation, where spouses agree to mediate their divorce and related financial and parenting issues and give the mediator the authority to make decisions as an arbitrator if they are unable to come to an agreement.

If you live or work in central Pennsylvania, including Carlisle, Harrisburg, Hershey and surrounding areas, and would like to discuss alternative dispute resolution methods for divorce or any other family law issue, please contact me.

The Central Pennsylvania Collaborative Law Community

Central Pennsylvania, including Harrisburg, Hershey, Carlisle, York and surrounding areas, has a thriving collaborative law community. This community includes collaborative attorneys, divorce coaches and financial professionals. The Collaborative Professionals of Central Pennsylvania (CPCP) focuses on educating the public and other professionals about the collaborative law process and how it can be used to resolve divorce and other family law issues. As a current board member and former President of CPCP, I value the educational and networking opportunities the group provides.

Collaborative law came to Pennsylvania in approximately 2003, but has been practiced in other parts of the United States and other countries since about 1990. Many of the collaborative professionals initially trained in 2003 and 2004, who established CPCP, are still involved and actively practicing collaboratively. Cumberland, Dauphin and York counties have well-established networks of collaborative professionals working to help clients through the divorce process in a private and respectful way. Through CPCP we have established accepted procedures and guidelines for handling collaborative cases, so all members know what to expect and can explain to their clients what to expect in the collaborative law process.

All attorney members of CPCP are also trained as mediators. Not all of them conduct private mediations, but many do. For clients who choose to resolve their divorce or family law conflict by mediation, this provides a network of trained mediators throughout central Pennsylvania, including Harrisburg, Carlisle, Mechanicsburg and surrounding communities. I enjoy serving as a mediator for couples. When I’m representing an individual who is interested in pursuing mediation, I look first to my trusted colleagues in the central Pennsylvania collaborative law community to recommend a mediator for him or her.

Almost all CPCP members will provide a free 15 minute phone consultation for individuals interested in learning more about the collaborative process. In addition, central Pennsylvania collaborative professionals conduct seminars and community events throughout the region to educate and inform other professionals and the general public. Individuals who have resolved divorce and other family disputes through the collaborative process are the best source of first-hand information about what to expect and why the process works. All members of CPCP are also members of the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals (IACP), whose website provides additional information about the process.

If you live or work in central Pennsylvania, including Hershey, Harrisburg, Carlisle and surrounding communities and would like to discuss the collaborative law process and divorce or any other family law or estate planning issue, please contact me.

Gathering Information

Regardless of the process you use to go through a divorce, you must gather information in order to make informed decisions. There are numerous ways to gather information, ranging from relatively simple and inexpensive to increasingly complex and increasingly expensive. The information you need is the same no matter what process you use to obtain it. You need information regarding incomes, marital assets and liabilities, nonmarital assets and liabilities, education and earning capacities, health problems and treatments and most likely some other information specific to your marital situation.

Ideally, you and your spouse will agree on the process used to gather information. That way you have a “game plan” understood by both of you. You and your spouse can do the majority of the legwork to gather information, saving both of you some counsel fees and emphasizing the fact that you can work together to resolve your divorce. That means agreeing that you will exchange information that’s important to both of you, share it with your attorneys and streamline the information gathering process.

Some processes, such as mediation and the collaborative law process, incorporate information gathering into the decision-making steps. As part of the mediation and collaborative process, both spouses agree that they will voluntarily provide information that’s relevant to decision-making and that information gathering is done informally. It is both effective and efficient without taking unnecessary time or expense.

Information gathering in the litigation process is usually different. This often involves the exchange of formal written request for information such as interrogatories and requests for production of documents. It can also include depositions, where individuals are asked questions under oath with a court reporter present. It may involve subpoenas to third parties for information. All of these methods include much greater involvement by both attorneys in the information gathering process and are more confrontational in their approach. They are more expensive and more likely to harm the relationship between spouses instead of helping them work together.

Ultimately you and your spouse decide how to gather information. If you are in central Pennsylvania, including Harrisburg, Carlisle, York and surrounding areas, and would like to discuss the issue of gathering information or any other family law related issue, please contact me.

Basics of Collaborative Law

Collaboration means to work together to achieve a common goal. The collaborative process involves the spouses, their attorneys and any other involved professionals engaging in non-confrontational sessions to discuss the issues and goals of the involved individuals. The issues may include divorce, support of a spouse and/or children, how to divide the marital assets, co-parenting plans and anything else that spouses need to decide.

The collaborative process involves spouses interacting directly to reach a negotiated settlement through a series of four-party conferences. The parties and their attorneys agree that if they are unable to resolve their issues through negotiation, the attorneys involved in the collaborative process will not participate in any future litigation.

The attorneys work together with the goal of reaching a negotiated agreement and listen to both spouses. The collaborative team focuses on the same goal. Even with this team approach, each individual can also feel confident that his or her attorney represents only him or her. Individuals can rely on their attorneys for advice and guidance with the assurance that the attorneys are also working toward the parties’ single goal – a negotiated resolution.

Collaborative attorneys have specialized training and assist the parties in defining their issues, gathering the information needed and offering creative solutions. The collaborative process usually results in a quicker resolution than the litigated alternative and can be less costly.

Everyone commits to good faith negotiation in a respectful and constructive manner. The parties and their attorneys also commit to full disclosure of information that is relevant to the spouses in their decision-making. If the parties successfully negotiate a resolution it will be reduced to a written contract that can, if necessary, be enforced through the courts.

The collaborative process can help the parties maintain a cordial relationship once the divorce and/or other issues have concluded. This is especially important when there are children involved. Children learn how to conduct themselves primarily by watching their adult role models, especially their parents. Demonstrating to your children that adults can address tough problems with respect and dignity to reach a negotiated resolution is an invaluable lesson for them.

If you are in need of assistance in dealing with family-related issues, including separation or divorce, you should carefully consider the process by which you will resolve all the issues that will arise and whether the collaborative process can meet your needs. The way in which you deal with these difficult situations may impact you and your family more significantly than you can imagine. If you would like to discuss the collaborative process and its use in central Pennsylvania, including Harrisburg, York, Carlisle and surrounding areas, or any other family law issue, please contact me.

Basics of Mediation

Mediation is negotiating with the assistance of a neutral third party (the mediator) who facilitates the negotiation process. Mediation involves non-adversarial negotiation between individuals based on their interests, needs and concerns. It is usually an informal process, with the mediation sessions taking place in a conference room setting. The parties participate in a series of mediation sessions in which they work jointly to resolve their conflicts without litigating the case in court. Mediation allows the parties to be in control of the decision-making process and requires that both of them be involved for the conflict to be resolved.
Usually the parties and the mediator are the only people actually involved in the mediation sessions, although the parties should also be represented by their own attorneys. The parties’ attorneys can provide legal advice outside of the mediation sessions and review the terms of a proposed agreement to make sure the agreement is legal and enforceable. Generally, the parties’ attorneys will also prepare the formal agreement containing the terms arrived at by the parties during the mediation process. The mediator may also speak with the parties’ attorneys.
The mediator does not offer legal advice to either party and does not make decisions for the parties. Instead, the mediator serves as a neutral third person who helps the parties interact with each other in a purposeful and non-threatening manner. The mediator guides the conversation during the mediation process, but the parties decide which issues they will address and which issues are the most important to them.
Individuals may use mediation to address virtually any conflict they encounter with any other individual or business. In the area of family mediation, the parties can address divorce, child custody and co-parenting arrangements, division of assets and financial issues such as child and spousal support. Individuals can even attend mediation to work out the terms of a prenuptial or postnuptial agreement.
Effective mediation can influence how individuals interact with each other, even after the mediation process has ended. Effective communication between the parties is the basis for mediation. This sets it apart from litigation, in which the court’s decision is not usually dependent on whether the parties can communicate effectively. Parties do not need to communicate effectively before attending mediation, but during the mediation process they must be willing to explore more effective communication techniques.
If you would like to discuss mediation in central Pennsylvania, including Harrisburg, Carlisle, Hershey and surrounding areas, or any other family law issue, please contact me.

How to Truly Listen

Most of us (including me, more frequently than I would like to believe) don’t listen very well. We talk back and forth with other people. Sometimes we yell back and forth or talk over one another. But with all that talking, we don’t really put aside the “response” part of our thoughts long enough to truly comprehend what others are trying to communicate to us.

I recently listened to a TED Talk with John Francis entitled “Walk the Earth … my 17-year vow of silence.” If you haven’t heard it, I highly recommend it. It’s a worthwhile 20 minutes. He describes the realization that came to him after he stopped talking as follows “Because what I used to do, when I thought I was listening, was I would listen just enough to hear what people had to say and think that I could — I knew what they were going to say, and so I stopped listening. And in my mind, I just kind of raced ahead and thought of what I was going to say back, while they were still finishing up. And then I would launch in. Well, that just ended communication.” What a great explanation of how most of us avoid truly listening to others and defeat effective communication.

It’s difficult to truly listen to other people without forming a response in your mind while you’re supposedly paying attention to what they’re saying. It takes a concerted effort to truly listen. But it pays off when you achieve more effective communication.

I believe that truly listening to other people is the single most useful technique to help resolve conflict. As an attorney and mediator, I must truly listen to what my clients, other attorneys and everyone involved in a conflict is communicating to me if I’m going to help them reach an acceptable resolution. I must also be aware of when others do not seem to be truly hearing what I or another person is saying and not let the conversation go on until I’ve done my best to help that happen.

Even if you’re skeptical, it’s worth a try. What do you have to lose? I don’t think that making an effort to listen to others in a conflict will make thing worse and you might be pleasantly surprised.

If you would like to discuss listening or any other family law or estate planning issues, please contact me.

Divorce Coaches

Divorce coaches can make a huge difference in the divorce process. The divorce coach acts as a neutral professional helping to foster healthy, productive communication between the divorcing spouses. Divorce coaches are psychologists, therapists, social workers and other individuals with specialized education in the mental health and communication areas. Unlike attorneys, divorce coaches are not representing either party.

Divorce coaches are involved most frequently in the collaborative process, but can also help couples engaged in mediation. I have not yet been involved in a litigated divorce that included the use of a divorce coach, but I believe a coach could make a huge difference in litigation. Imagine a neutral person involved in a court action solely for the purpose of helping the spouses communicate more effectively. I think that could significantly reduce the court’s divorce docket.

Coaches generally meet with spouses individually and/or together between the conferences in the collaborative process. They are sometimes involved in the 4-party conferences also, which then become 5-party conferences. The spouses determine the extent of the coach’s involvement with input and advice from their attorneys and the coach.

Some attorneys will not engage in the collaborative process without a coach involved. I strongly recommend to my clients that they meet with a coach at the start of the collaborative process and then decide jointly with their spouse how and to what extent they would like the coach to be involved. I have been involved in successful collaborative cases without a coach involved, but I recognize the benefits that coaches have brought to cases in which they were involved.

Coaches can make the collaborative process proceed more smoothly and efficiently. Having a divorce coach involved can be more cost-effective because by helping the spouses communicate, the coach can sometimes reduce the amount of time spent by the attorneys and possibly reduce the number of meeting needed to reach a resolution.

If you would like to discuss divorce coaches in central Pennsylvania, including Harrisburg, Carlisle, Hershey and surrounding areas, or any other family law related issue, please contact me.

Can’t a Judge Decide Everything?

Yes. A judge (or at least the court system) can decide everything in your family law dispute, whether it involves divorce, division of property, support or parenting arrangements (custody) or some combination of these issues. Of course, before you decide to use the court system to reach a resolution, you should consider what that process will actually involve and what it means to have the court system make decisions for your family.

You should recognize that even if you use the court process, you may never actually appear before a judge. The actual procedure varies from county to county, but most Pennsylvania counties have one or more steps you must go through before getting to a judge. This is designed to help people reach agreements if possible and also to reduce the number of disputes that judges need to address. Divorce masters handle divorce cases, including conducting the hearing; domestic relations support officers handle child and spousal support cases; custody conciliators meet with parents to address custody cases.

If the dispute is not resolved at these initial levels, you may then end up in front of a judge or there may be another intermediate step, depending on the county practice. Most disputes are either resolved by agreement before actually getting to a judge or the interim decision-maker’s decision is not appealed to a judge. So you may be signing up for an adversarial system that will ultimately push for you and your spouse to make the decisions yourselves.

If you’re going to make the decisions by agreement anyway, why not voluntarily engage in a process that is designed to help you reach agreements instead of a process designed to have you fight against each other? Alternative dispute resolution methods such as mediation or the collaborative law process are specifically designed to help couples make their own decisions privately and respectfully, without the unnecessary complications involved in the court system. Before you decide to have a judge make all the decisions for you, consider the alternatives.

If you decide to push through the litigation system and have a judge make decisions for your family, be prepared to be disappointed. You will experience a lot of stress, confusion and a hefty price tag to have a less-than-perfect decision imposed on you and your family. That’s why I recommend using litigation as a last resort instead of as a first choice.

If you would like to discuss litigation, alternative dispute resolution methods or any other family law issue, please contact me.