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Collaborative divorce can help reduce cost, time and animosity

After 14 years of marriage, Marla McKinney wanted a divorce, but without her and her husband destroying each other and with some family ties intact.

She’d had a traditional divorce — fighting it out in court — after her first marriage, so when her attorney suggested an alternative like “collaborative law,” she was willing.

Collaborative law is designed for people who want to minimize conflict and work out an agreement with their spouse without going to court. This process is supposed to save time, money and emotional pain.

A dozen lawyers in Cedar Rapids and Iowa City were trained last month in collaborative law and will be the first to offer this less adversarial type of divorce in the Corridor.

Collaborative law was founded in 1990 by a Minneapolis attorney, and since that time, many other states have adopted the practice.

Jake Koller, who practices family law with Simmons Perrine Moyer Bergman in Cedar Rapids, said a group of 20 or so lawyers in Des Moines have been resolving divorces like this for the past five or six years.

“There shouldn’t be the misconception that this is easy, but it’s a way to resolve conflict as opposed to creating it,” said Koller, who coordinated the local training.

Koller said this differs from mediation because the couple must sign a binding agreement to reach a resolution, and each spouse must be represented by an attorney who has problem-solving and negotiating skills to help them explore all their options. In mediation or a self-represented divorce, there’s no binding agreement, and the couple is on their own, he said.

If they can’t come to an agreement, they must hire new attorneys and begin the traditional process, he said.

McKinney, 65, of Johnston, said her ex-husband didn’t want the divorce, so it took some prodding. They started the process in January 2005, and it was final three months later. “My first one took about a year to settle,” she said.

McKinney said she was impressed with both attorneys, who allowed her and her ex to be creative in their solutions.

“What we did with the house and the business we started together wouldn’t have made sense to anyone else except us,” McKinney said. “We did some unusual things, but the lawyers helped guide us and pushed us to do it.”

McKinney said it wasn’t inexpensive but compared with a traditional divorce, “it saved a chunk of money.”

Anjie Shutts, McKinney’s attorney with Whitfield and Eddy in Des Moines, said it’s typically less expensive than a traditional divorce, depending on the circumstances. The average divorce can run from $3,000 to $5,000 or more. An average collaborative divorce runs about $2,000 to $4,000.

“The two most important things you have are your children and money. Why leave those up to a (judge) to decide,” Shutts said. “This way (the couple) have control over all of it.”

Shutts said there’s also a savings if mental health or financial planners are needed, because the couple agree to share resources.

Shutts said she handles about five to six collaborative divorces a year, and all were resolved without going to court.

Fifth Judicial District Judge Michael Huppert said he presided over family law cases last year in Polk County, and he thought the collaborative divorces were a good idea, because it keeps the couple in control and out of court.“I think (judges) prefer they work out their financial needs and custody issues because they are most familiar with those,” he said.

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