Monday, March 10, 2014

Naj Wikoff: A Better Way to Divorce

Debra and JohnOnce in LA, I saw this middle-aged woman driving a black Porsche Carrera GT. The license plate read, “WAS HIS.”

Divorce can be nasty, expensive, and tough on the kids, families, and friends. I have friends who said they were lucky to get out still owning their golf clubs. I know people who decades later are still traumatized by a past divorce, be it their divorce or that of their parents.

A reality of living in small towns is after the divorce you still meet your ex at the art center, grocery store, post office, waiting in line to vote, or attending civic events and holiday parties, encounters made more difficult if the divorce could have been a scene out of the film “War of the Roses.” Friends are often put in an awkward position as they may care equally for you both and don’t want to take sides. The kids though, they really take the beating.

As for going to court, if both sides are equally dissatisfied by the verdict then it is considered a good decision. You’d think there should be a better way, one that costs less, is not so stressful, and where the couple mutually decides how to go forward making the best shared-decisions they can for their kids.

Turns out, now there is. It’s called Adirondack Alternative Divorce Solutions; a not-for-profit organization founded by Keene Valley residents the lawyer Debra Whitson and her husband John Haverlick, a therapist.

“Our purpose in setting up Adirondack Alternative Divorce Solutions is to help couples approach ending their relationship in a more collaborative way and having a team of professionals there to provide them support as they go through this process, rather than them essentially doing this alone and feeling that they have to go to battle with their partner, with the other attorney, with the court system, and with any mental health professionals they get involved that they see as the enemy,” said Haverlick. “Our goal is to help them achieve an outcome that they want, that their partner wants, and that will also be beneficial to their kids. In the adversarial process the kids often become pawns like property that they feel they have to fight for, to have legal custody of, or have visitation with – a process that just stresses everybody out.”

“For a long, long time before I got into collaborative divorce I would tell my clients routinely that leaving important decisions about your children, your life, your future, and your financial state in the hands of a well meaning, well educated stranger in a black robe is lunacy,” said Whitson. “No offense to judges, but judges, in my experience, are far more comfortable in settling or deciding civil disputes involving money between business people than making family decisions because by virtue of rules of evidence and how law suits are handled in court they know very little about these families that they are making decisions about so they don’t relish making those decisions.”

But, does this approach work?

“This approach allows for a broader range of discussion and that’s really good,” said Dan, currently going through a divorce with his wife. “It is really too bad this was not available in Essex County when my wife filed for divorce because there is some real scaring that takes place in a court process. This is not my first divorce. My first divorce was an acrimonious. It was thoroughly unpleasant and it took seven years. This one has been going on for more or less three years, but the collaborative process only started last June.”

“Is it pleasant?” Dan continued. “No. However it is more reasonable than a process in front of a judge who is inevitably interested in pushing cases through and getting them off his docket because judges are overworked. I would recommend this process with the caveat that it doesn’t work unless both people want to get divorced; that at least is my impression. As it says in the instructions, unless both people are convinced that they are going to get divorced they shouldn’t go into this. I was completely blind-sided. I had no idea of getting divorced and no desire to get divorced, but by the time we had been through a year of argument and another year in court I was sure that my wife needed a divorce, therefore I had to get divorced.”

“If this process works for us, and I hope it does as it is not over yet, and we are able to come to a resolution, that’s terrific. I am hoping that is the case because it will be just dreadful if we have to go back to court. Another thing is that this approach costs a whole lot less money.”

“With the legal approach, first of all I should say, it was necessary for me to take him to court for child support,” said Carol, Dan’s wife. “In our first court skirmish I won big, but the difficulty was that there are assets that were very difficult to value in the marriage. Even though I scored big first time out, we were facing the prospect of spending a very long time in court resolving the property issues because there was no clear-cut way to value the property. One of the key things this approach does is we can decide not to worry about that. We can go for a situation that both of us can live with without having to fix a figure on things that are very difficult to value where we would almost certainly disagree. This doesn’t mean that that value is irrelevant, but I think we could have probably spend two years litigating what that value was.”

“I would recommend this process very strongly,” Carol continued. “There are probably circumstances under which it probably might not work, but one of the important features of this is a financial advisor who can point out to us what the reality of the situation is and what is in our mutual financial best interest. I think the financial advisor has been a really key player. Even if someone were to point that out in a regular divorce there is nobody who could play that role that could be trusted to be objective.”

“Also, one of the things that is interesting to me, as an observer of this process, was to see how well the attorneys who were working in an adversarial situation totally aggressively can turn around and work jointly to correct misunderstandings and misapprehensions in ways that are to everybody’s benefit. Especially important, I think there is a good prospect that my husband and I will remain friends after this while I think if we had litigated there would be very little prospect of that.”

What Adirondack Alternative Divorce Solutions does not do is provide services to help a couple go through divorce. What they do is provide lawyers, therapists, and others involved in divorce proceedings training in alternative divorce and, for people planning on getting divorced or legally separated, they provide a list of resources, professionals who have received such training, and the steps to take to get started. The benefits often can be a much quicker process of reaching resolution, less cost, less emotional damage, and walking away with a measure of friendship intact.

This story first appeared in the Lake Placid News.

Photo: Keene Valley residents Debra Whitson and her husband John Haverlick of Adirondack Alternative Divorce Solutions.

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Naj Wikoff is an artist who founded Creative Healing Connections, the Lake Placid Institute, and co-founded the Adirondack Film Society-Lake Placid Film Forum.A two-time Fulbright Senior Scholar, Wikoff has served as president of the Society for the Arts in Healthcare, director of arts and healing at the C. Everett Koop Institute, Dartmouth Medical School, and director of Arts and Productions for the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine. Wikoff also covers Adirondack community culture events for the Lake Placid News.

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