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Putting the we in team
Collaborative divorce takes a team-building approach
Gainesville attorney Nancy Richardson says couples don't need to spend thousands of dollars when sorting out a divorce. She has helped organize a training workshop on the concept of "collaborative divorce," which will be Friday and Saturday. - photo by Robin Michener Nathan

The notion of divorce conjures up images of heated fights between spouses sitting on opposite sides of a table, both armed with smug lawyers eager to log fees as the drama unfolds.

But local attorneys say there is another way to end a marriage - one that takes less time, is one-third less expensive and is less damaging to children.

Collaborative divorce is a process that has been catching on in Georgia since 1998, and the Northeast Georgia Collaborative Law Group is holding a two-day workshop in Gainesville this weekend to train area professionals on the divorce practice.

Rather than using only attorneys in divorce proceedings, collaborative divorce uses a "team-building" approach that brings both sides' attorneys together, as well as financial consultants and mental health professionals to address all the legal, financial and emotional facets of a divorce.

Nancy Richardson, an attorney with Stewart, Melvin and Frost of Gainesville, will help lead the workshop that aims to jumpstart Interdisciplinary Collaborative Family Practice in Gainesville.

Collaborative Law Training Associates Inc., a team of experienced interdisciplinary professionals, has conducted collaborative workshops nationwide and will be conducting the Gainesville training session.

Richardson, who was trained in collaborative divorce in 2007, said she wants to introduce the practice to Hall County, but first needs financial and mental health professionals in the area to be trained in the method.

"I haven't done one in Gainesville yet," Richardson said.

"I really hope that we can offer this in Gainesville because it seems like a good option for people concerned about how divorce affects children," she said.

The integration of children's mental health care professionals into the process of divorce is a key element of collaborative divorce, Richardson said, especially since the children are typically involuntarily drawn into the conflict.

Nora Bushfield, a lawyer with the Collaborative Law Center of Atlanta who has completed about 300 collaborative divorces, said the process begins with clients signing an agreement that they will not go to court until the case is settled.

Keeping divorce proceedings out of court not only saves time and money, Bushfield said, but also saves children the agony of being caught up in their parents' high-conflict litigation.

She said it takes an average of six months to complete a collaborative divorce, but she has worked cases where the divorce was finished in an initial two-hour meeting.

"I think a lot of times, parents aren't thinking what's in their children's best interest. We just watch people spend hundreds of thousands of dollars - their children's college education - on a divorce, which seems like a form of insanity," she said.

Bushfield said an agreement to keep the proceedings of a divorce out of court enables the team of attorneys, financial and mental health professionals to devise creative ways to expedite the divorce and work out a plan between parents that benefits the children.

For example, Bushfield said she worked a divorce where the father agreed to move into a house just a block away from the marital residence, which allowed children easy access to both their parents.

"I feel like the greatest gift I can give them is to resolve the conflict between them and give them communication tools that will help them in the future to ... be effective co-parents, and the kids will be the beneficiaries," Bushfield said.

Richardson said the workshop will train area professionals on how to create an interdisciplinary team based upon the financial constraints of each family, allowing marriages to be terminated as amicably as possible.

"That's the joy of this practice," she said. "You don't have to act like a jerk to the other party."

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