Redefining

divorce

Family Matters

February 20, 2000|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Sun Staff

OLD DEFINITION

(de-vors) noun. legal and formal dissolution of marriage. generally painful, humiliating and messy process. [see related: divorce lawyers, accusations, bitterness, acrimony, hefty fees]

NEW DEFINITION

(de-vors) noun. cooperative process where two parties reach agreement to dissolve a marriage with less red tape, hostility and harm to children. [see related: mediation, arbitration, collaborative divorce]

When David and Ilene Zeitzer of Columbia decided to divorce after 31 years of marriage, they found they could agree on at least three things: No lawyers. No warfare. No recriminations.

For the Zeitzers, contentiousness was out. They wanted to find another way to resolve their situation.

"We didn't want to hurt each other, and we particularly didn't want to hurt the children," recalls Ilene, 54, whose two daughters are now 24 and 26 years old. "We wanted to retain our respect for our relationship and what it had been."

Divorce is never easy -- just ask any of the nation's 19.4 million adults who have experienced the process. But lawyers, judges and other family-law experts say they are seeing more participants like the Zeitzers -- divorcing couples who are intent on reducing the level of conflict.

That groundswell has given rise to a profession virtually unknown two decades ago -- divorce mediation, where a third party helps couples reach a cooperative divorce agreement. And it has spawned experimental efforts like the Minnesota-based "collaborative divorce" movement, where lawyers pledge to handle a client's divorce only if they settle outside a courtroom: Reach an impasse in mediation, and both lawyers must drop their clients.

"I think the worm is turning," says Diane Sollee, director of the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education in Washington. "There's a lot of misinformation and ignorance about divorce. It wasn't that people were bad or determined to be adversarial, but we didn't know how to do it right."

When Stanley L. Rodbell opened his divorce mediation office in Columbia 18 years ago, "people were suspicious of it." In less than a decade, mediation gradually became accepted, even commonplace, in Maryland. By the late '90s, it had become mandatory for many divorcing couples.

The advantage of mediation is that the mediator represents neither the husband nor the wife, but merely tries to help the two parties negotiate their settlement. It is less formal, less intimidating and less confrontational than a trial.

"I don't get much argument from people when I ask, 'I guess you want to do this with your dignity intact and spend no more than you need to?' " says Rodbell, a lawyer with a degree in social work. "Most people don't want to go to war."

The price advantage

Richard Jacobs, a family-law attorney in Towson, says most of his clients opt for mediation or arbitration (a more formal process where lawyers are present) rather than seek a full trial -- if only because it is far less expensive.

Mediation may cost as little as a few hundred dollars compared with the thousands of dollars and sometimes tens of thousands of dollars in legal bills generated by a contested divorce.

"When people seek war rather than settlement, no one is happy at the end," says Jacobs. "Clients may say in the heat of the battle they'd rather give me the money than their spouse, but they don't really mean it."

Even when couples are ordered into mediation by the courts, the chances they'll negotiate a settlement are high -- 50 percent or more, according to some estimates.

"People come into the process, and they are not themselves," says Aza Howard Butler, director of custody and mediation for Baltimore County's Circuit Court. "They're angry. They're hurt. They're overwhelmed by their emotions at a time when they're being asked to be smart and think."

"But when people are introduced to the fact that being vicious to another person affects their children, some of them actually get it," she says. "You can get to them if they love their children more than they loathe the other parent."

Initially, mediators were seen primarily as a way to resolve custody and visitation disputes. More recently, they've been called upon to tackle the financial issues of divorce such as child support and alimony.

That's left the profession in a quandary: Should a mediator be a lawyer or a mental health practitioner? Lawyers argue that non-lawyers shouldn't be relied upon to settle financial disputes.

"On the other hand, the folks who are really equipped to handle custody and visitation issues are typically mental health professionals and not lawyers," says Thomas C. Ries, a Towson divorce lawyer.

In Minnesota, couples can opt for a collaborative divorce, where lawyers place a premium on settlement in a "dignified, nonadver- sarial manner," says James D. Gurovitsch, a director at the Collaborative Law Institute, a nonprofit center in suburban Minneapolis where lawyers are trained in the subject.

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