Melissa Donahue, LCSW is the Unit Leader NASW-NJ for Bergen and Passaic County. On January 27th, she invited Shireen Meistrich, LCSW to present a program on collaborative divorce to the Bergen-Passaic social workers. Both Melissa and Shireen are members of the Collaborative Divorce Association of North Jersey. Collaborative Divorce offers a respectful and dignified approach for families going through a divorce. Educating the professionals working with these family’s about this consensus dispute resolution option remains essential so people can understand all the options available to them during the process. Collaborative Divorce focuses on all family members goals, needs, and interests to help a family achieve an optimal resolution for a final settlement.
Thinking of divorcing or leaving a relationship, especially if you have children together? Have you seen this movie yet? If you are not dealing with a similar situation, it’s likely that you know someone who is. If so, see the movie (fine acting) and learn what not to do!
We meet Nicole and Charlie, good, caring people, loving parents, who are about to come apart in a mediation session. They intend to keep their divorce simple and reasonable so they decide on mediation, a wise decision. Unfortunately, their inept mediator was inflexible with the process – it was his way or the highway. Nicole chooses the latter. Mediation, when skillfully executed, is a valuable resource for a respectful divorce. A mediator needs to be sensitive to each spouse/partner’s needs and emotional state as well as the facts. S/he can guide a couple toward mutually agreed upon decisions.
Nicole is convinced to hire an attorney who persuades her to seek more from her husband. Charlie is forced then to secure an attorney. He selects one who articulates the benefits of alternate dispute resolution, involving kinder, gentler methods of divorcing, such as mediation. But, dissatisfied with his advice, Charlie switches attorneys to counterbalance the demands of Nicole’s attorney. The legal battle begins, way beyond what either spouse wanted. Their attorneys don’t respect the couple’s wish to have reason and peace prevail. This is a drama and there are painful moments as Charlie and Nicole are pitted against each other, at times eradicating their warm feelings in the lovely descriptions they wrote about each other in the movie’s opening. The movie does not elucidate more complicated family and personal emotions.
The divorce war ensues. A social worker arrives to observe and determine Charlie’s ability to parent. His anxiety is cringe worthy while he’s being judged by the stiff and charmless woman who comes to assess his parenting skills. Viewers witness the family evolving and ‘unraveling’ emotionally, the parents, tearing each other apart, ‘guts’ churning. Their young son struggles to adapt to changing environments, school, friends, new parental habits and loyalties… not a pretty picture.
Apart from some of the extenuating circumstances and Nicole’s lawyer’s outfits, the movie does portray the realities of what can happen when couples engage certain litigators who want to win instead of settle. Unnecessary antagonism, haggling and expensive hours can cause a family more than the usual pain of coming apart. Parents accuse and counter and their children bear the consequences.
What we did not see, in this film, was what can occur when skilled professionals offer alternate dispute resolution, a civil and respectful way to dissolve a relationship. These processes, such as mediation, not skillfully executed in this film, are available. Another method of divorce, not depicted in this film, is collaborative divorce. Collaborative attorneys respect clients’ wishes and needs, helping them through the legal process without getting the court involved. Specifically trained, licensed mental health professionals are available to attend to the emotional needs of the clients, as a divorce facilitator (this is not therapy) and to give voice to the children’s concerns (as a child specialist). Also on hand, as needed, are collaborative financial professionals who help couples assess their assets and liabilities and budgets to best move forward financially.
Had the couple in the film engaged in an alternate dispute resolution divorce, they all would have been spared much fear and heart ache. I won’t spoil it for those who have not seen the film by sharing the end. It’s a good film. See for yourself!
By: Sharon Klempner, MSW, LCSW, BCD
Divorce is a wrenching experience for all family members. Parents are sad at the end of something they thought would be ‘forever’ when they first came together. Children lose their family grouping, in the way they always knew. Now there are two homes, changes in lifestyle, maybe new people in their lives and other adjustments. But that’s not a reason to not continue to raise well adjusted children. It just takes some special attention.
• Know your children, their needs, fears, quirks, strengths and weaker areas. Keep that information in mind as you parent.
• Listen to them before you speak so you know the best way to approach things.
• Individualize them. Pay close attention to each child’s personality, their relationship with both parents, etc. – to share certain information, individualized.
• Be aware of yourself and how you look when you are speaking. Pay attention to
your voice, your facial expressions and your body language. The body speaks too
hopefully, in sync with what you are saying. You don’t want your body and face
to be announcing doom while you are saying that things will get better.
• Don’t limit what your children have to say. Hear it all – the sad, the bad, the mad.
It will give you important information about they are feeling and what they need.
If they can speak, and be heard, about their hurt and anger, they are less likely to
to act out those feelings.
• Let them know you are deeply listening by repeating your understanding of what
they are saying. They can correct you if you are wrong and appreciate when you are on target. It feels so good to be heard and understood and not shut down.
• Speak to what you hear them saying and empathize so they know you are right
there with them.
• Be consistent with most of your household rules. A little loosening lets them know you understand but trust they will be OK to carry on as usual. Dropping
all rules and tasks sends a message that nothing is the same. Continuing rules
offers structure, so important when other aspects of life are changing.
• Be the best that you can be…real, maybe vulnerable, but strong and up to the
challenge. Remember, they do as we do. You are their main support and role
Be sure to utilize all of your own supports and be kind to yourself. Life does go on and life, after divorce, is a new chapter. You have a lot to do in the writing of it.
By Sharon Klempner, MSW, LCSW, BCD
There’s a lot of talk about mindfulness lately….focusing on being in the moment, being fully present without being overly reactive or overwhelmed. Add awareness and non-judgmental to the list. We can take a class in mindfulness, do the exercises and help develop greater inner peace. Harder to imagine is mindfulness going through divorce…a life altering experience, the angst, the pain…but… there is a way, collaborative divorce.
Unlike traditional divorce, with two attorneys often strategizing to get the best deal (which can cause considerable strife between partners/spouses) , the collaborative method consists of a team (trained in mediation and the collaborative process), dedicated to making your divorce respectful and out of court. The attorneys work cooperatively, while still protecting their client. All work together to come up with a plan that serves both parties and children in a non-judgmental yet purposeful atmosphere.
In addition to the attorneys are licensed mental health professionals who help maintain the emotional temperature in the room. It is not therapy, but a supportive way to know what you want and need, going forward, without emotionally damaging either partner/spouse. The collaborative facilitator is there if you or your partner/spouse get ‘overheated’ and need to take a break. They offer assistance and guidance to calm partners/spouses and to more effectively present their thoughts and needs. The facilitator can help inform the attorneys on the best way to proceed, considering the personalities and situation.
The collaborative child specialist informs parents, after briefly meeting with the children, of their concerns to better tailor the Parenting Plan to meet the specific needs of their family. They are trained to understand children of all ages and make them feel comfortable and safe as their parents navigate through the divorce process. The result is a more cooperative co-parenting team to continue as a family, but in two homes. Children learn, via parents, that coming apart does not need to tear people apart.
When appropriate, a collaborative financial expert joins the team to help couples divide their assets and establish a realistic budget that will work for both. These experts are not only skilled in dealing with figures but also dealing with the stress people experience and helping them toward a more relaxed way to ‘divide the pie’.
In collaborative divorce, you do not go to the court, in itself a stressful environment. No, you are settled in a lawyer’s quiet consultation room, with conscientious seating so all are equal and comfortable. You are assisted in focusing on what is important to you and to state that in a manner that expresses your needs without offending or distancing your partner/spouse. None of us can change the past. Team members help couples stay in the present which is the best way to plan for the future. They do not overemphasize the negative but pay attention to the positive. In a non-judgmental manner, collaborative professionals help couples pay attention to what is essential to them. Each couple and family is unique. Collaborative professionals celebrate that and the concept that when mindfulness prevails during divorce, all family members can grow and move past division and create addition in their lives.
By:Sharon Klempner, MSW, LCSW, BCD
Judith Deer, Esq. delivered a spirited talk to 15 members of the Collaborative Divorce Association of North Jersey at its recent brown-bag lunch on April 3, 2019. The presentation included all aspects of division of retirement plans as part of the divorce process. Ms. Deer is the president of All-Pro QDRO, an organization dedicated to assisting law firms in negotiating and drafting a Qualified Domestic Relations Order (“QDRO”).
Various types of retirement plans were reviewed. Ms Deer discussed in detail the difference between Defined Contribution Plans (such as a 401(k) or savings plans) and Defined
Benefit Plans (such as traditional pension plans). The various mechanisms of division of Defined Benefit Plans were addressed including the martial coverture approach (Marx Formula) and the immediate offset approach.
A most informative part of the talk included division of a 401(k) pre-judgment, without any early withdrawal penalty. By the use of a QDRO, qualified payees which are limited to a spouse, former spouse or a dependent can utilize a QDRO pre-judgment for certain purposes including payment of legal fees. In these instances the alternate payee satisfies any taxes which might be due.
Ms. Deer reviewed the four things which should be included in the Property Settlement Agreement, to then be incorporated into the QDRO. These include the following:
- 1.Qualified Pre-Retirement Survivor Annuity so the alternate payee receives the funds even if the participant dies before the plan goes into effect.
- 2. Marx Formula (martial coverture fraction).
- 3. Cost of living increases.
- 4. Early retirement subsidy.
Ms. Deer pointed out that if these items are negotiated between the parties, which unfortunately is often not the case, it can avoid problems later on when preparing the QDRO. If the early retirement subsidy, for example, is not included in the Property Settlement Agreement, it can result in litigation at a later point.
Ms. Deer also discussed New Jersey state plans as opposed to Federal plans; public plans as opposed to private plans; and provided a general overview of TIAA-CREF. The mechanism by which various plans set up separate interest accounts for the alternate payee was also reviewed. Ms. Deer pointed out that once an election has been made for the creation of the separate interest account, such elections are irrevocable.
We were also treated to a discussion of the unique Police Fire Retirement Pension which is the only plan in New Jersey that does not allow for survivor benefits. Ms. Deer recommended that if a PFRS plan is involved, the best approach is to value the pension so that the alternate payee can be bought out or if necessary life insurance can be purchased to avoid the problem of the participant dying before the alternate payee.
Judy had an audience which was quite interested in the presentation. She endured questions which went on well past the usual ending time. An enjoyable and educational experience was had by all.
By: Daniel Hoberman, Esq.
No one wants to think about their own demise, so life insurance is often a chore that we procrastinate doing or rush into without much thought just get it done. However, when used as a tool to secure a former spouse’s alimony obligations after his or her death, we want our collaborative professionals to know the ins and outs to protect us. Members of CDANJ recently participated in an eye opening discussion highlighting the 7 common life and disability insurance mistakes made by attorneys in negotiating divorce settlements.
Host, Scott Schroeder of Alimony Protection Group LLC, discussed the perils of:
1. Not independently verifying the status of existing Life and disability insurance policies;
2. Not determining if the supporting spouse is able to qualify for new Life and disability insurance coverage if needed;
3. Not determining the proper amount of Life and disability insurance coverage to secure the alimony and support payment obligations;
4. Not obtaining the correct type of Life and disability insurance policies to secure the alimony and support payment obligations;
5. Not implementing the proper ownership structure of the Life and disability insurance policies to maximize tax benefits and protect beneficiaries.
6. Not changing the beneficiary designations on existing Life and disability insurance policies after the divorce is finalized;
7. Not providing the supported spouse with ongoing access to relevant Life and disability policy information.
Scott then shared his expertise in how to avoid these mistakes so as to provide a higher degree of comfort and security to collaborative clients. Scott’s focus was to shift the life insurance discussion from a last minute detail to a regular part of our collaborative discussions. Knowing what insurance a family has and what is needed after a divorce can be eye opening. Scott helped our professionals recognize a common problem in divorce negotiation and reframe the issue moving forward. The more knowledge and tools our collaborative professionals have to find peaceful resolutions to family conflict, the more readily they can assist in creating settlements that protect families.
Whether you are considering divorce or in the process, you need to think about how you and your partner/spouse will both parent your children. Unless your partner is unavailable or totally incapacitated, for any reason, you are in it together. There are choices to be made.
Decide between you so no one else gets to mandate your parenting role, the most important job in your life.
- Do you have similar parenting philosophies and styles?
- Can you both work through different opinions?
- Is there flexibility for the children’s benefit?
- Is your communication reasonably good?
- Do you trust each other’s parenting?
- Can you both put the children before your own feelings?
If you can answer affirmatively on the above, than you are ready for cooperative coc-parenting. It is the best way for your children to flourish. They learn that, although you do not want to be with each other any more, you are able to work together for their sake. You will be good role models and add to your children’s sense of security and well-being.
- Do you both have very different parenting styles?
- Do you feel very strongly that you are usually right?
- Is it hard to communicate without arguing, name-calling, etc?
- Are the children ‘stuck’ between parents?
- Are stalemates your norm with each other?
- You both want to have relationship with your children.
If your answers are ‘yes’ to the above, than cooperative co-parenting is not going to work for you at this time [though, hopefully, that would change]. Parallel parenting is recommended in such situations. When there is high conflict, parental contact needs to be minimized. Your Parenting Plan would be more detailed so all (you and the children) know what to expect…a rigid schedule, no last minute changes and no direct parental contact. Communication needs to be through texting, e-mail or notes, with just the facts, no emotion. Think of it as a business message. You all lose flexibility but gain peace of mind if parental contact is discordant.
If cooperative co-parenting is your choice, congratulate yourselves and keep it going!
If you are not able to co-parent in a cooperative manner, please make it a goal!
Sharon Klempner, MSW, LCSW, BCD
The New Jersey Council of Collaborative Practice Group members attended the 2018 Seattle Forum of the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals. We spent the weekend learning and sharing and exchanging ideas with the global community. We received amazing collaborative training and participated in the inaugural global pin exchange. Lots of professionals were seeking out our NJ pins so next year we need to bring even more!
Collaborative Divorce Association of North Jersey had three members attend the 2018 Seattle annual IACP Forum this past October.
Left to right:
Marcia Werner, Shireen Meistrich, and Mitchell Arons.
There was lots of in depth learning and collaborative training available all weekend long. The full group will also meet on Wednesday November 7th to share the learning and wonderful training with our larger collaborative CDANJ community.
We are already planning for the 2019 Forum in Chicago!
Collaborative Divorce Association of North Jersey members spend the day on May 3rd training at the New Jersey Council of Collaborative Practice Groups annual event with Ron Ousky. Great day of advanced learning and networking with fellow NJ practitioners!
Bottom left: Adam Berner, Marcia Werner, Amelia Nickols, Toby Friedman
Top Left: Sharon Clancy, Melissa Donahue, Sharon Klempner, Larry Esposito, Dan Hoberman, Shireen Meistrich and speaker Ron Ousky