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"Difficult Custody Decisions Are Made By Agreement"
Monica and Bob had two daughters, 11 and 14. The older of the two girls was clearly her father's partisan. She endorsed his views about all of the 'wrongs' that her mother had done to him. Bob had no reservations about sharing his views and wounds with his 14 year old because he was, after all, "just telling her the truth."
Monica had become somewhat remote emotionally. She found it difficult to communicate effectively with their older daughter. For the most part, if they were together for very long, their conversations would turn into arguments. As a result, when they separated, the 11 year old went with her mother and the 14 year old stayed with her father. To their credit, the parents did an effective job of scheduling so that the girls were able to spend a great deal of time together and each was also able to see a good deal of the 'other' parent.
The 4-way meetings were for the most part civil and respectful even though Monica and Bob each expressed strong feelings about (their somewhat conflicting views of) the history of the relationship. The lawyers did their best to help both clients feel that the meetings were safe venues where seemingly conflicting opinions, feelings and needs could be expressed without any risk that the meeting table would become a battleground. At times it seemed that being able to express their feelings related a particular subject of the negotiations made it easier to find the basis for agreements.
It was not long before Monica and Bob told the lawyers to 'write it up.' The agreement was to include custody provisions that would perpetuate the informal temporary arrangement that the parents had worked out early on. The draft that the lawyers submitted to Monica and Bob was generally approved and a meeting was scheduled to address a few items that one client or the other thought needed some additional attention. When Monica and her lawyer met to review the meeting agenda and prepare for the meeting, she told him she had a feeling that Bob was planning to move to a community over an hour's drive away and that he intended to take the 14 year old with him. Her lawyer said he would mention her concern when he touched bases with Bob's lawyer as they did before each 4-way meeting.
At first, Bob's lawyer was surprised and not totally credulous when he heard of Monica's concerns. Then, he remembered the mild sense of discomfort that he had felt during his own preparation meeting with Bob. He thanked Monica's lawyer for the heads up and said that he would give the matter some thought. At the meeting Bob's lawyer had good reason to be grateful for the advance notice. Before the meeting even began, Bob announced that he and the 14 year old were moving away. They had decided and there would not be any need for discussion. It was a fait accompli.
Monica, with support and encouragement from both lawyers asked Bob how he saw the custody arrangements working out and what he thought the pluses and minuses would be for each of the girls. They discussed the 14 year old's learning disabilities and whether there would be adequate resources to address them in the new community. It seemed clear that Bob had not given a great deal of thought to the consequences of his new plan but, it was equally clear that he was determined to see it through. There was no doubt in the minds of anyone at the meeting that the 14 year old would be equally determined.
The room became very quiet. Bob's lawyer finally spoke. He told Bob and Monica about how situations like theirs are handled in the court system. Emergency orders would be sought and granted, accusations would flow, expensive psychological studies would be ordered and no one would be allowed to leave the community until a trial could be conducted. It would probably be over a year before the matter could be resolved. The monetary and emotional costs would be huge. He asked and each of the clients agreed that they had chosen the Collaborative Family Law process so that they would be protected from the damage that the adversary process inflicts on people.
Bob's lawyer went on to point out what protected them from the consequences of litigation. They had made some very important agreements which are contained in the Collaborative Family Law documents - the stipulation and order and the principles and guidelines that all four had signed at the beginning of the process. The spirit of the deal is that everything will be done by agreement and nothing will be imposed on either person. Although Bob did not see his decision as a power play, he recognized that Monica was not in agreement with his plan. He was not pleased but, he recognized that he had made a commitment. He addressed both of the lawyers and asked how they proposed to work this one out.
Monica's lawyer asked both of them whether they didn't still share a common interest in understanding what their children needed and doing their best to provide it. They, of course, agreed. Monica asked what they could do to find some common ground. Bob's lawyer said that there were a number of therapists in the community who worked with these situations. In court cases, they would be ordered by the court to examine the situation and make a detailed written report and a formal recommendation to the judge. Those experts could also act as consultants who would talk to the parents and the girls to gather information and then meet with the parents, answer their questions and discuss various alternatives and their possible consequences. With all of that new information and the benefit of the expert's perspective, Bob and Monica would have new ideas about the alternatives. Then, there could be another 4-way meeting.
Several weeks later, Monica called her attorney and reported that there would be no need for another meeting. An agreement had been reached. The 14 year old would move with her father on a 'trial' basis. Working with the expert they had identified indicators that would help them to monitor the situation. At some point there could be a review meeting with the expert. Monica was still concerned but, she had come to realize that, if she prevented their 14 year old from moving with her father, the 14 year old would not be very pleasant to live with and that would effect the 11 year old, too. In addition, Monica thought that the 14 year old would then go through her life feeling that her mother had 'cheated' her out of the opportunity to live with her father. It was not an easy or a totally comfortable decision for Monica but, she was convinced that, under the circumstances, it was the right thing to do.
The lawyers had a phone conversation. A new custody agreement was prepared and a draft was approved by the parents. The final agreement was printed and a 4-way meeting was scheduled to execute the agreement and conclude the case. Shortly before the meeting Monica called her lawyer. Plans had changed, again. Bob had reconsidered and decided that he would not move out of the community. The old agreement was to be resurrected. This time there was no last minute change of heart. The meeting was conducted. The agreement was signed and the case was concluded.
Monica's lawyer comments: "We speculated, but never knew, what caused Bob to change his plans. I met Monica for lunch about a year later. Bob had not said anything to her about his reasoning and Monica had felt it best not to ask. The girls were doing well and the older daughter had begun to spend much more time with her mother than Monica had expected. One thing that we do know, however, is the emotional and financial carnage that would have befallen this family if they had chosen at the outset to use the court system instead of the Collaborative Family Law process. Over the year since her case had been concluded, Monica had spoken with several other people about her divorce. She appreciated the support that she had received from her lawyer and also from Bob's lawyer and she was grateful to Bob for keeping the promises that were contained in the collaborative documents that they had signed."