Property division is one of the most contentious elements of a divorce proceeding. If the parties cannot settle their differences out of court, the judge hears arguments and determines how marital property will be distributed upon the final divorce decree. The state’s overriding property distribution laws determine how much leeway a judge has in this decision.
Ten states (Alaska, Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin) use the community property doctrine, which means all marital property is divided 50-50 regardless of circumstances. Each spouse also maintains their own claims on separate property. The remaining states (including Virginia) and the District of Columbia use equitable distribution, which gives a judge much more discretion to determine what is a fair division of property. The final decision does not have to be an even 50-50 split, but what is fair to both parties. Various court cases over the years have given judges some guidance as to what is considered “fair,” but generally speaking, equitable distribution statutes allow judges to consider the facts and be creative. We will discuss some of these cases in a later post.
Obviously, the best way to deal with property issues is for the parties to settle, saving you the contentiousness and expense of a trial. And it would be more advangeous to have a pre-marital (pre-nuptial) agreement in place.
In popular culture, divorce depicted as an ugly adversarial process with estranged spouses always dramatically at each other’s throats. Real life is usually never as “exciting” as it is on television, but it is really not that far off. Divorce can be an ugly adversarial process that takes a lot of time, money and emotional cost.
Back in 1990, a Minneapolis lawyer named Stuart Webb founded the collaborative divorce model. The process of collaborative divorce is to get both spouses and their attorneys in the same room and work together to hammer out an agreement without going to court. Instead of the secrecy and strategy of the traditional adversarial setting of a divorce trial, the parties would lay everything on the table and figure out the best way to move forward in as cooperative an atmosphere as possible.
Collaborative divorce uses a different financial model than the traditional adversarial model. Instead of filing court pleadings and hiring experts as the process drags on, the spouses decide from the beginning who the attorneys, mental health professionals who will act as advisors, and the neutral financial analyst will be before beginning negotiations. As a result, much of the cost of the divorce will be borne earlier in the process rather than escalating as the trial gets closer.
Collaborative divorce is a form of alternate dispute resolution, but it is not mediation, which is generally done in conjunction with a traditional adversarial process.
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