Collaborative Divorce Lets Couples Split Without Litigation

By Candace Kelley

When Attorney Denise Wennogle sits with a client, she always shares the message that divorces don’t have to end up in $100,000 worth of turmoil. Last fall, Gov. Chris Christie signed the “New Jersey Family Collaborative Law Act” with unanimous support from the Senate and the Assembly. A collaborative divorce means a divorcing party doesn’t actually file a complaint for divorce in court that explains his or her side.

“The parties, along with their attorneys, sign a participation agreement. The participation agreement regulates how the process will take place,” Wennogle explained.

There are no judges. Experts from various fields help smooth the process. Wennogle says the law legitimizes collaborative divorces, compels all parties to sign a participation agreement and now all parties at the table are protected by a confidentiality privilege. It’s an approach, she says, that can save time and money.

“Instead of having each person have their own expert, what we do is have a joint expert. We decide on the best expert for the family for whatever situation it may be. It may be an appraisal, or it may be a custody evaluation,” said Wennogle.

Assemblywoman Holly Schepisi sponsored the bill saying, “This helps reduce the backlog in family courts, saves taxpayers money and reduces costs for the families involved. It’s a positive and proven alternative for family members to settle their differences in a non-confrontational way.”

Collaborative divorce has been around since 1990, but now that the idea has it’s made its way to New Jersey, supporters of the process say that attorneys now have to do their part and learn about the process.

Wennogle says some attorneys may be resistant to this new way of getting everyone together at the table, but she says the advantages would be clear if attorneys thought about their cases differently.

“Take a step back from all of your cases, all of your litigated cases, and look at the families that you have been dealing with,” she said.

Wennogle adds that once you sign the collaboration agreement, you still have the option to go to court and litigate if the collaborative process doesn’t work out — but there are rules.

“People cannot file a complaint for divorce without giving notice to all of the parties and retaining different litigation attorneys,” she said.

But, she says she has high hopes that she won’t have to cross that bridge much. Nine out of the 10 couples she has already assisted were able to finalize their divorce without litigation, using the collaborative process.