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A Former Judge’s Take on the Family Court System

As a Florida family law attorney, I tell clients all the time that – for the sake of their children, finances, and sanity – it is best if divorcing spouses are able to reach an agreement on their own, without leaving important decisions that will affect the rest of their lives up to a judge.  I have found that interdisciplinary collaborative practice is the best way for families to reach a resolution, though other options (such as mediation and direct negotiations) are also almost always better than the court system.

Sue Cochrane, who served as a family law judge in Minnesota, also believes that the current family court system is broken.  Below are excerpts of an article she penned for The Collaborative Review (Winter 2014 / Volume 15, Issue 1):

After eighteen years on the family bench I am sensitive to the needs of the thousands who still show up [to court] due to lack of funds or awareness of other options.  Having Collaborative practitioners and others from diverse disciplines working side-by side with those of us from the courts was, in my opinion, a monumental advancement.

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The law is well-known for being logical and dispassionate.  Courts are where intellect and linear, analytic thinking prevails.  In the admirable pursuit of truth and justice, the courts can inadvertently deny the humanity of the people it is supposed to serve and even of the judges and staff who work there.

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Podcast: Comparing Collaborative Divorce and Mediation

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Garin Vick in Tampa, Florida, where we recorded an interview for his podcast show, Divorce without Destruction.  We discussed the similarities and differences between collaborative divorce and mediation.

We talked about how both are forms of private dispute resolution that are better than duking it out in court.  We also discussed how the structure and the process of collaborative divorce and mediation differ, and what it means for families going through or considering divorce.

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Florida Collaborative Divorce: A Flowchart

Many people come to my Tampa office because they heard collaborative divorce is private, respectful, conducive to co-parenting, and usually quicker than the traditional courtroom divorce.  But they do not quite understand logistically how the collaborative process works.

The first thing to understand is that each party is represented by his or her own attorney whose sole purpose is to help the parties reach a settlement.  The attorneys are contractually barred from engaging in costly, damaging contested court battles.  If parties want to fight one another in the court system, they must choose different litigation attorneys.

A neutral facilitator, who usually is licensed in a mental health profession, is involved in most collaborative cases.  The facilitator not only helps the parties (and attorneys) focus on the future rather than rehash the arguments of the past, but he or she also teaches the parties communication and dispute resolution techniques that will help them and their families long after the divorce is finalized.

A neutral financial professional is also oftentimes used to efficiently ensure financial transparency between the parties, to develop personally-tailored options for support and the division of assets and debts, and to help the clients budget to give them the best chance for financial security once their divorce is finalized.

Some folks are visual learners, and so my firm has created a flowchart that shows how a collaborative case might proceed.  Please understand that, depending on the facts of your case and the needs of your family, your collaborative divorce process may be customized differently:

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New Collaborative Divorce Brochure from the IACP

CP LOGOThe International Academy of Collaborative Professionals, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping families work through divorce and other issues privately and respectfully, recently put out a new electronic brochure that explains the collaborative divorce process.  To view the brochure, click on the link below, then click on the bottom right hand-corner of the brochure and drag to the left to flip through the pages:

http://collaborativepractice.com/media/41538/e_brochure_ENGLISH.swf

You can also find out about collaborative practice in the Greater Tampa Bay and Sarasota areas by going to the website of Next Generation Divorce, a local network of caring collaborative professionals.

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Tampa Tribune: Florida Gay Marriage and Gay Divorce Cases

As I wrote in a previous post, a Florida Circuit Court judge in Monroe County (in the Florida Keys) declared that Florida’s ban on same sex marriage is unconstitutional.  Though that ruling was stayed (not put into effect) pending appeal, a Miami-Dade judge made a similar ruling this past week, which was also stayed.

A few days before the Miami ruling came out, I was interviewed by Elaine Silvestrini of the Tampa Tribune about my Tampa same sex divorce case now under appeal in the Second District Court of Appeals and how the Florida Keys ruling may or may not affect the divorce case.  Below are some excerpts of the Tampa Tribune article:

Although the decision [to permit same sex marriages] has no force of law in the rest of the state, lawyers [in the same sex divorce case] say it may help their case for divorce equality.

“It’s not authoritative, but it provides a little bit more persuasion,” said Adam Cordover, who represents [one of the divorcing spouses]. “It shows that yet another court has ruled in favor of marriage equality. The currents of history are in favor of marriage and divorce equality.”

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Radio Interview: Collaborative Divorce and Christian Values

Collaborative attorney Joryn Jenkins and I recently appeared on Spirit FM 90.5’s Legally Speaking to talk about Collaborative Divorce.  Spirit FM is a Christian radio network that broadcasts out of Christ the King Church in the heart of Tampa, Florida.

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As I mentioned during the interview, we do not advocate divorce:  anyone with marital troubles should consult with their priest, pastor, rabbi, marital therapist, or other clergy or professional and do all that they can to repair their relationship, especially if there are children involved.  No matter what process is chosen, divorce is a painful ordeal, and the spouses are not the only ones affected.

However, there are times when a marriage is truly irretrievably broken.  It is in those cases that we urge parties to consider collaborative divorce, which is a private, respectful family law process that helps spouses dissolve their marriage while keeping their dignity intact.  This is in stark contrast to traditional divorce, where the adversarial court system pits husband versus wife, mother versus father, ultimately to be judged by a stranger appointed or elected to a government position.

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What Your Florida Divorce Lawyer May Not Be Telling You

The vast majority of divorce attorneys in Tampa Bay and around Florida are good, hardworking people with their clients’ best interests always at mind.  However, there is one divorce option that more and more financial and mental health professionals agree is the best way to handle a family law matter, and yet many attorneys will not tell their clients about it:  collaborative divorce.

Collaborative divorce is a private form of dispute resolution where each spouse hires their own attorney only for the purposes of helping to negotiate a marital settlement agreement. Collaborative attorneys are contractually prohibited from going to trial or bringing any contested issues to be decided by a judge.

Trial Divorce = Big $$ for Attorneys

This is one reason why there are a lot of divorce trial lawyers who are against collaborative divorce:  attorneys make a lot of money billing time for trial-related activities such as depositions, interrogatories, witness preparation, exhibit analysis and selection, and trial itself.  Trial attorneys bill this time even though they know that 95% of all divorce cases end in settlement, even sometimes after trial but right before a judge issues a ruling.   Read more

Sample Florida Child Custody Schedules

In each Florida family law case (such as divorce or paternity) that involves the custody of a child, Florida law requires that a parenting plan be established.  One of the most important elements of a parenting plan is the child custody schedule, now known as a “time-sharing” schedule.

Family Law Tip:  You should never let a judge decide your child’s time-sharing schedule.  A judge does not know your family dynamics and bases such decisions on very limited information, and usually the judge is seeing parents, especially divorcing parents, at the worst time in their lives.  Instead, you and your co-parent should use a private form of dispute resolution, such as collaborative family law.

As I tell clients who come to my Tampa office, there are many different types of time-sharing schedules.  Below are some samples provided by the 12th Judicial Circuit (which includes Sarasota and Manatee Counties).  The parent who is listed in a box is the one whom the child will be staying with overnight:

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Who Started Collaborative Divorce?

Ever since my first basic collaborative divorce training in Tampa in 2011, I have been enthusiastically offering the collaborative process to my clients as a better way to handle family law matters.  I have also tried to become a student of the process, reading every book I can get my hands on that discusses collaborative divorce.

Right now I am reading The Collaborative Way to Divorce: The Revolutionary Method That Results in Less Stress, Lower Costs, and Happier Kids – Without Going to Court.  This book is written by Stu Webb, the founder of collaborative divorce, along with Ron Ousky, one of the early leaders of collaborative practitioners.

In the introduction of the book, Stu discusses how he came up with the collaborative method:

In 1989, I had been a divorce lawyer for about eighteen years – and was getting pretty sick of it.  I saw what the adversarial court battles that were the focus of divorce were doing to my clients, and I knew the resulting negativity was having an effect on me, too.

In traditional litigation two lawyers (or teams of lawyers) hash out the divorce in a court of law.  The actual parties to the divorce – the husband and wife – have almost no direct contact with each other, and what little interaction they have is usually bitter and unproductive.  Tension, fear, anger, and recrimination prevail.  This traditional process makes it almost impossible for the parties to have anything remotely resembling a healthy relationship after the divorce, even when there are children involved.

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Consequences of Not Paying Florida Child Support

If a court orders you to pay child support, I have two words for you: Pay It.  Child support is taken so seriously by the Florida and federal government that it is one of the few types of debts that cannot be discharged in bankruptcy proceedings, and it can be enforced against you no matter which state in this country you live in or move to.

The Florida Statutes and Florida Family Law Rules of Procedure provide several consequences of not paying support.

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