Negotiating in a Quick Divorce Agreement

This example case illustrates how the mutual aspect of Collaborative Divorce can speed up the divorce process.

Collaborative Divorce in the Fast Lane –
Negotiating an Agreement, Start to Finish, in Ten Days

Collaborative or not, divorce negotiation ordinarily takes at least several months – more typically the better part of a year, and not infrequently, more than a year. In this particular scenario, our client asked us,

“Is it possible to do this in 10 days?”

We scratched our heads and said, “maybe.”

After asking a series of questions, we learned that he and his wife (we’ll call them Sam and Martha) had been married for more than 20 years with two daughters – one in a private high school and the other in a prestigious college. Sam had a modest-sized business, and the family lived comfortably, but they had never owned a house – instead always renting.

Sam and Martha had talked about separation and divorce for several months. They had tried couples counseling, but the wife ultimately concluded that the marriage was over.

Martha had found a house that she wanted to buy in the suburbs of Boston, and she had made an offer. The acceptance of that offer catapulted Sam and Martha into action.

The reason for haste was that the down payment on the house was going to require virtually all of their cash. Our client was willing to turn all of that over to his wife in exchange for a signed Separation Agreement providing a definite and non-modifiable structure for his post-divorce obligations. He wanted to know, for example, that he could grow his business without having to worry about whether that growth would mean an open-ended liability for more alimony.

Martha, on the other hand, was less worried about the future – she was confident in her marketable job skills, and she was willing to move very quickly to reach a deal. She was more concerned about buying a house when interest rates were at historic lows.

Sam first learned about collaborative law through Martha. She had hired Laurie Udell, a divorce lawyer and mediator and member of the Massachusetts Collaborative Law Council (MCLC). Martha gave him a list of CL attorneys and, after reviewing it, Sam gave us a call.

Our first task was scheduling a series of meetings and coordinating everyone’s schedules. A CL process agreement was signed at the first meeting, and we began divvying up tasks. We needed values for Sam’s business and the commercial real estate on which it was built. Working together, Sam and Martha spoke with two independent real estate brokers for an opinion of value on the commercial property. Instead of hiring an appraiser to value the business, they jointly interviewed some competitors, and found out what they might be willing to pay for it. They also prepared financial statements and gathered other documents (such as bank records and tax returns).

One of the critical breakthroughs came from a series of conversations that Sam and Martha had with their accountant. They both trusted him, and he proposed an arrangement that would allow Sam’s business to employ both daughters, earning them tax-advantaged funds for college.

Another critical breakthrough was their agreement that the cost of the high school and college should be treated as a current liability, and therefore, in exchange for Sam taking on the entire responsibility for those expenses, he would retain 100% of the ownership in his business.

The collaborative process, of course, played a critical role in keeping this negotiation moving smoothly. A series of productive four-way meetings (ranging from two to seven hours), held approximately every other day for a week and a half, provided the forum for sharing perspectives – often sharply differing – about the fairness of various arrangements. Each of the lawyers worked hard to forge a relationship and feeling of rapport with the spouse on the other side of the table. (The lawyers already knew each other fairly well, which contributed to their efficiency.)

Ultimately, the parties agreed to a 50/50 division of assets and a matrix for support payments that took into account variations in both Sam’s and Martha’s incomes – i.e., support payments go up with increases in Sam’s income, and go down when Martha’s income increases.

The Separation Agreement was signed on time.

Both Sam and Martha deserve enormous credit for their ability to work together. When issues arose during four-way meetings, they quickly conferred and worked them out. Their strong motivation, resourcefulness, and commitment to the process sustained momentum and kept everyone on track.

Their agreement was approved a few days later by the Family Court.

Martha succeeded in closing on the house and she and Sam are still getting along – making their children the true beneficiaries of their success with the collaborative process. The experience also provided their collaborative lawyers with an important learning experience – operating on the basis of trust and cooperation, while still taking professionally appropriate precautions to verify information, can move mountains and do so with amazing speed.

This case study, published in the first issue of the MCLC’s Collaborative Law Journal, was edited from its original, written by: David Hoffman and Vicki Shemin