If you’re in the mood for courtroom dramas, Netflix can quickly recommend 100 for you. Some of the most gut-wrenching, tear-jerking stories are those of families working through (and around) the legal system.
But Chicago-area attorney Theresa Kulat explained that there is an alternative for couples that want to end their marriages without the anger displayed by Golden Globe nominees. She is president of the Collaborative Law Institute of Illinois (CLII), a non-profit organization comprised of members from the legal, mental health and financial fields. These attorneys are committed to keeping their clients out of the courtroom.
Kulat was a Collaborative Divorce client before she earned her CLII certification.
“I appreciate that Collaborative Divorce is not for everyone,” Kulat said, “but when both spouses accept that divorce is going to happen, for the right family, this can be an almost magical experience.”
However, it takes a team to get there. It works like this: when two spouses agree that divorce must happen, each retains a certified Collaborative (with a capital C) Divorce attorney; these professionals have completed many hours of special training in mediation and associated strategies to maintain their certification. The spouses and attorneys then call upon a neutral financial coach to advise both spouses, a mental health professional (or two, if the spouses prefer separate therapists) and a neutral child advocate to represent the best interest of the minor children, if applicable.
“The team is there is educate and empower both parties so that they understand everything and can make good decisions moving forward,” Kulat said. “We are helping people in the long term and the agreements we come to are durable.”
She compared it to a charter flight in which the pilot, flight attendant and mechanic work together to get the passengers from Point A to Point B.
“They don’t do any of the others’ jobs,” Kulat noted. “Sometimes they work together; sometimes they do their own thing. But this is a charter plane, not a commercial flight, so you get to pick your destination and customize what your life is going to look like when it’s all done.”
The team members and divorcing spouses sign an agreement on Day One, which says, among other things, that the Collaborative Divorce attorneys will not represent their clients if the divorce goes to litigation. The goal is to always reach a settlement that satisfies both sides.
But Kulat acknowledged from the very beginning that Collaborative Divorce is not for everyone. Just as there is a lid for every pot, there is an attorney for every unhappy married person and plenty of business to go around.
Couples best suited for the collaborative divorce process meet three criteria, Kulat said.
First, underneath it all, they care for and respect each other, even though they don’t agree on everything. Second, they voluntarily allow full access to the absolute truth. Financial statements, for example, must be shared without hesitation.
“In a courtroom, litigators have access to subpoenas and other legal tools that we don’t have,” Kulat said. “So if you think your spouse is keeping two sets of books for [his or her] business, you are probably not a candidate for Collaborative Divorce.”
Also suitable for resolution through a collaborative course of action: couples with children or a shared business — or people who have a significant interest in maintaining a healthy relationship after the marriage is dissolved.
But make no mistake: the Collaborative Divorce attorneys who lead these proceedings represent their clients as voraciously as anything Netflix promotes. They are trained to walk a fine line.
“There has to be a balance of head and heart, where both are engaged and both are honored,” Kulat said. “You can’t be all gushy-gushy Kumbaya because that doesn’t satisfy the needs of your client to analyze the numbers, but if you go into this [with your head only], you won’t connect with the client and empathize.”
Find more information at collablawil.org.
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