Collaborative divorce in Pennsylvania: An introduction

This is an alternative dispute resolution process that involves a commitment to negotiate to resolution outside of the court process.

Many people who find themselves in an unexpected place where divorce may be in the future do not know that there are alternatives to traditional divorce. In traditional divorce processes, the parties usually try to negotiate a settlement agreement through their lawyers. Issues they cannot agree on are contested and must be decided by the Pennsylvania state court judge presiding over the divorce.

Divorce trials have the potential to get adversarial and stressful. Nowadays, collaborative law and mediation are alternative processes to come to resolution of disputed matters in divorce. In this article, we will introduce the basic concepts of collaborative divorce.

The main hallmarks are:

  • The parties enter into a participation agreement setting out the terms of their collaborative process.
  • They agree not to go to court, but rather to respectfully negotiate resolution of all of the legal issues in their divorce through a series of four-way meetings with their lawyers.
  • The process uses neutral professionals hired jointly by the divorcing parties to provide information and guidance needed in the process. These may include financial experts, accountants, appraisers, real estate professionals, parenting coaches, child psychologists, mental health experts and others.
  • The parties commit to behave with dignity and respect; to keep proceedings confidential; and to voluntarily provide all information needed.
  • Should the collaborative process fail, the parties must hire new lawyers.

Parties that may especially want to consider collaboration are seniors, parents of minor children and couples with high assets or family businesses, but it can work for anyone if the situation is right. Potential benefits of collaboration include:

  • Less stress
  • Better post-divorce relationships, especially where children are involved and the parents must co-parent after divorce
  • Less expensive, although not always
  • More creative solutions
  • More privacy than court

On June 28, 2018, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf signed the Pennsylvania Collaborative Law Act, to take effect in 60 days. The Act sets out procedures for lawyers and parties to follow throughout the collaborative process. According to a press release by Rep. Kate Klunk, R-York, author of the bill, "hundreds of attorneys in the state" are already practicing collaboration and the law "creates a uniform standard for collaborative law" in the state.

Klunk cites statistics from the Pennsylvania Bar Association that collaborative divorce proceedings have a success rate of 93 percent. Five percent of these couples decided not to divorce and the remaining 2 percent used traditional divorce proceedings.

Collaboration is not for everyone. Sometimes the animosity is just too much to sit down around a table and negotiation is not going to be fruitful. If a party has mental health problems, substance abuse issues or a history of abuse or violence, the likelihood of a healthy negotiation is slimmer. In fact, the new law contains specific procedures attorneys must follow if considering collaboration when a party has a history of violence.

If you are a Pennsylvanian facing divorce, you should sit down with a family lawyer who has taken training in collaboration, experienced in mediation and practices traditional divorce law. A knowledgeable lawyer like this can listen to your circumstances to discuss the pros and cons of each process for your situation, so that you can make an informed decision whether collaboration might be favorable for you.

The attorneys at Sweeney Law Offices in Cranberry Township, Pennsylvania, are specially trained in the collaborative process and represent divorcing spouses across the Pittsburgh metropolitan area in collaborative divorce, mediation and traditional divorce.