The Collaborative Divorce Process in Florida with Guest Speaker Dr. Jeremy Gaies

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Video Transcript:

Christian D: Hi everybody it’s Christian Denmon in beautiful St. Petersburg Florida. We have a beautiful sunny day outside today, and we’re continuing our line of education through divorce series, and today I have a guest Dr. Jeremy Gaies, who’s going to come and help us learn about the collaborative divorce process.

Christian D: Dr. Gaies is a clinical psychologist in the Tampa Bay area, he’s also a family mediator, and he works very heavily in the collaborative divorce process and on a personal note, Dr. Gaies is the guy that I go to when I run into issues for families, and my clients during divorces and I just don’t know where to turn, and I need some guidance to make sure that as an attorney I don’t screw things up, that the family’s going to be okay when we’re done doing our thing.

Christian D: So without further ado, Dr. Gaies, tell us a little bit about yourself.

Dr. Gaies: Okay, thanks Christian. Thanks for having me here. I’m glad to get the chance to talk to you and talk to the viewers about how to help families go through a divorce process in a way that’s as peaceful and as uninvolved with the court as possible, which is collaborative divorce.

Dr. Gaies: So a little bit about me, I am a clinical psychologist, a licensed psychologist as you mentioned and a certified family mediator. Over the last 10 years I’ve really devoted my whole practice to helping families find a peaceful path through divorce. Currently I’m focusing exclusively on collaborative divorce which is an out of court process to help families craft their own divorce.

Christian D: And I correct that what, so bringing up the collaborative process, it’s a way to try to catch things for the very beginning and help people resolve their issues in a divorce but also to try to keep it from hurting the family and to put them on a very positive path, as positive as you can after going through what is an otherwise traumatic event.

Dr. Gaies: Yeah that’s exactly right. I mean, divorce is generally tumultus, disruptive for any family but for the parents and the children, but when it goes through a litigation process where in essence each parent is using the other for a certain amount of time with the children, a certain amount of money from the family resources, it gets to get much worse. The children tend to get caught in the middle. It’s a very stressful process. It’s a very expensive process. And so we’re always looking for ways to help families reach agreement, for spouses to get to some kind of understanding that they can put down in paper for how their going to raise their children, how they’re going to share the family resources, and to do that in a way that doesn’t involve judges and no offense, but as much as possible not overly involve the attorneys.

Dr. Gaies: Attorneys are excellent at helping work out legal details but when it comes to family matters, things such as time sharing, decision making between the parents, those are things that are really more of a psychological and family nature and so the more we can put that with the experts who handle that, the better for the families.

Christian D: No offense with the idea of trying to minimize our role in certain aspects as an attorney because I completely agree with you. There are certain things, the time sharing schedule and the communication between the parents, and the decision making that we’re, attorneys are not really equipped to deal with those problems, and we don’t necessarily help with you have two parents that are supposed to be communicating and they we’re actually a barrier in a way to the communication because we’re having a client that’s coming to me so I can shoot an email over to another attorney whose then going to relay the message over and so, I’m completely with you and that’s why we’re here chatting today. Right?

Dr. Gaies: Exactly, I mean the other issue is that when there are two attorneys, that means two players have to be involved in trying to work out an agreement. When you use a neutral professional to help work out matters about the parenting plan, time sharing, decision making, as you mentioned communication, you have just one person so you don’t have as much that gets lost in communication between the professionals and it’s not an adversarial relationship because in litigation, even if two attorneys really are trying to work cooperatively, it’s still by definitely an adversarial process. It’s also with the court right, so often there’s going to be more involvement with the court.

Dr. Gaies: We’re looking for ways to try to keep families out of the court and keep them with those professionals for each role that best serves the family.

Christian D: Sure. Like you mentioned, divorce it is a lawsuit. You are filing a lawsuit just like if you were suing an insurance company, or if you were suing somebody who crashed into your vehicle, it’s a lawsuit. And your attorney runs down and files it in court, and then your attorney sometimes has to call a process server or a cop who then takes the paperwork and serves it on your spouse and that’s the start of the process.

Dr. Gaies: And the spouse is usually not very happy to be served with papers at their office or at their home or wherever they might be. So it starts the whole process off in a really uncomfortable sometimes hostile way and once it starts to go down that track it’s really hard to pull folks back because people become very entrenched in their positions, they feel like they’re under attack and in some ways they are under attack, at least legally, and so it sets things off really on the wrong foot. We’re looking for ways to get families to the help that they need to reach agreements early on outside the court, in the most amicable way possible.

Christian D: Absolutely. So when we’re talking about filing a lawsuit right, that is a traditional way of doing the divorce process right.

Dr. Gaies: Yes.

Christian D: And when we’re talking about collaborative divorce you’re saying, look we have a different way of doing, a different process of divorce that we can take families through from start to finish.

Dr. Gaies: Exactly, in fact most folks to go through a collaborative divorce process they don’t have to file anything with the court at the start. So there’s no divorce papers, there’s not process servers, there’s an agreement between the two spouses and the two attorneys to work in a collaborative fashion, they sign an agreement that spells out how they will work together and part of that agreement says that if anyone goes to court, if anyone starts to litigate that those attorneys can no longer represent those spouses.

Christian D: Sure.

Dr. Gaies: So it keeps everyone at the table working to reach an agreement, and that can happen without filing anything with the court. When they do ultimately reach resolution, and the attorneys draft a collaborative marital settlement agreement that spells out all of their agreements, financial in terms of everything involving the children, the attorney can simply go to the judge, ask the judge to sign off on it, and that’s the only involvement the family has with the court system. That’s a much better way for families to go through a divorce.

Christian D: Yeah and in my experience, judges are completely on board with parties and supportive of parties who are going through a collaborative process and it’s basically rubber stamping any agreements that have come in front of them.

Dr. Gaies: Yeah at least in our jurisdiction it’s about a five-minute hearing and both spouses don’t even have to be there, you just need one spouse to be there and one attorney to represent the case, and in five minutes the judge signs off. Judges are thrilled that collaborative divorce is happening it means they’re, not body’s clogging up their courtroom, it does not work that they have to manage, they don’t have to make decisions for families that the parents can better make for themselves. So from the court’s perspective collaborative divorce is all for the good.

Christian D: Absolutely. And I want you to take us through the collaborative process. Before we go there, mentioned two different types of divorce processes. The traditional litigation, somebody’s going to get served, there’s going to be a judge assigned right away, and then there’s a collaborative divorce process which we’re starting to get into which is the focus of our conversation today. But I know you’re a family mediator as well.

Dr. Gaies: Yes.

Christian D: So are there any other options that I’m missing besides the two we’ve discussed?

Dr. Gaies: Sure there are a variety of options for families. The ideal option if everyone is really agreeable and it’s not a complicated process is what we call a kitchen table divorce. So that means that the spouses sit down together and they work out an agreement on the finances, on where the children will spend time, on how they’re going to handle everything related to the divorce. There are a small number of families that can do a kitchen table divorce, but for them, they don’t you, they don’t need me, they don’t need the court other than to file the papers.

Dr. Gaies: Other folks need more involvement but they may not need my involvement, or your involvement directly, they may need to go just to a mediator. So I serve as a mediator as times, many attorneys serve as mediators when they’re not representing either spouse, and that is having someone who is a neutral person who will simply try to sit down and help the spouses reach an agreement. Many families can use mediation without having to go through a full litigation process.

Dr. Gaies: There are also families that need to have their attorneys representing them. The attorneys may sit in on the mediation, but they still use a mediator to try to get to an agreement. Collaborative divorce is a step beyond all that, and what makes it different is that it’s not part of the litigation process. So that even when mediation is used, it’s typically after someone has filed divorce papers, the court is still holding periodic hearings, and the mediation is an attempt to reach an agreement that they can be brought to the judge.

Dr. Gaies: In the collaborative process, right from the very start there’s an understanding that nobody is suing anybody. These are folks who are going to sit down with the support of a team of professionals, it may be just two attorneys but often times it includes neutral professionals such as a neutral mental health professional, and oftentimes a neutral financial professional, to sit at a table very much like this conference table we’re sitting out and to share thoughts, to share ideas, to talk about the law, but mostly to talk about solutions.

Christian D: Right, right and that’s a great point that you made which is even with the mediation process, even when you’re operating as a mediator in the mediation process, a lot of people have already filed their lawsuit, they’re already involved in that sort of two different sides. They’re already at war so to speak.

Dr. Gaies: That’s right.

Christian D: And so then during the mediation process, and they’re still guarded, now mediation right I mean everything’s privileged whatever happens in mediation stays in mediation, of course, but it’s not uncommon in fact it’s almost a standard course around here that when we got to a mediation and I walk in with my client, I’ll go into another room, a different room than the other spouse and that other attorney, and the mediator will go back and forth and we never even get in the same room together and part of that is because emotions are so high, because everybody’s been in the process, that the litigation process, and that’s just the way it is.

Christian D: And what you’re telling me, with the collaborative process, it’s something completely 180 degrees different, you kind of redefine how the divorce is going to happen from the very, very beginning.

Dr. Gaies: That’s right Christina. It really does look different. I’m absolutely an advocate for mediation so I don’t want in any way suggest that it is not a great process, it’s really a matter of matching the process to the family. So there are those families that can use a kitchen table divorce. There are those families that can use mediation. And there are those families that can benefit from other processes, and collaborative divorce is a newer process but it’s a very tried and true process at this point. It’s being practiced throughout the world actually, in fact, the organization that governs all this is the called the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals and it is truly an international organization. So there are collaborative divorce professionals in Italy and Israel, in Indonesia, in Hong Kong, all over the world. It’s spreading very rapidly because it makes sense. When people have disputes, especially complicated disputes, it makes so much sense for everyone to sit down at the table, with the support of a professional team and to carve out an agreement that is family specific that works for that family’s specific needs.

Dr. Gaies: Not only in terms of parenting issues, not only in terms of general finances but for example finding the most tax beneficial ways to divide up their resources, that’s something that can happen, but more effectively at a collaborative table than through any kind of adversarial process.

Christian D: Sure and part of that’s going to be the professionals that can help in the collaborative process, and I think you have mentioned a little bit ago, the idea of a neutral.

Dr. Gaies: Yes.

Christian D: Which is the opposite of what we usually see in litigation. In litigation, each side has their own expert.

Dr. Gaies: That’s right.

Christian D: And if I represent the husband, there’s the husband’s expert, maybe the husband’s financial expert. Bob the attorney represents the wife, maybe the wife has her own expert as well and there’s a lot of pressure for those experts to be experts for that party and to obviously to present a case that’s going to be most beneficial for their client.

Dr. Gaies: That’s right.

Christian D: But in collaborative we have something that’s neutral.

Dr. Gaies: Absolutely. Now there are different methods of using collaborative divorce. There is such a process that uses two different coaches, or two different mental health professionals, one to support each spouse. That’s a form of collaborative divorce that’s used in a variety of places in the country but here in Tampa Bay, we rely very heavily on what we call the neutral coach model. That’s where you have one coach, one mental health professional, we use the term facilitator in terms of this person’s role, someone who facilities the whole process, and we also use a neutral financial professional which is typically an accountant or another financial professional who gathers all the financial information, helps educate each spouse about that, and helps develop options with the full team for dividing up resources, or establishing the amounts for alimony and so on. So having those neutral professionals means that everyone’s not jockeying for position to make the best argument against each other. We’re sitting down, we’re looking at the data, we’re looking at the resources the family has but in terms of time, in terms of their finances and all of these things, and we’re helping them back decisions about how they want to design their family’s future beyond this process.

Dr. Gaies: It’s all about self-determination. None of the professionals will make decisions for them, but we’re going to help the spouses come up with different ways to make it work best for their family.

Christian D: Jeremy, can you start to take us through the collaborative process? How does this start?

Dr. Gaies: Sure there are a variety of ways that families might do this but I’ll give you a typical example. So the husband goes to an attorney and says, “I would like to hire you to get divorced.” And the attorney explains the different methods we talked about for divorce and the husband says that collaborative process, that seems to make sense to me, I’m hearing that it’s a more private process, it’s a more efficient process, and it’s a process that helps preserve the relationships within the family, and it’s very protective of the children.

Dr. Gaies: So the husband says, “I like that.” And the attorney says, “Well has your wife spoken to an attorney yet?” And the husband says, “Yes she did.” And the attorney says, “Well maybe I could speak to that attorney and we’ll see if that attorney is open to doing this in a collaborative way.”

Dr. Gaies: The two attorneys speak, they agree that this process is a good one for this family. The spouse’s sign this agreement we spoke about earlier, the participation agreement, that outlines how the process works. The professionals then meet usually by phone, sometimes face to face, and they exchange information about the family. The neutral mental health professional or facilitator will typically then have an individual meeting with each spouse and incidentally, this can happen if there are no minor children. That folks who don’t have minor children, or don’t have children at all, often chose this process again because it’s very private, it’s less conflictual, it’s quicker than typical litigation, but that information that the facilitator gathers will then be shared with the attorneys and the whole team including both spouses and all of the professionals will sit around a table, and they’ll start to talk about what are the matters that need to be addressed and what are the options for addressing these matters.

Christian D: Yeah and that’s an outside of the kitchen table model which you had mentioned earlier, which is usually, I’m not seeing that we never see that. When we get involved there’s usually either enough conflict or enough issues that need to be solved that there aren’t any other processes where we get everyone around the table that I can think of. I mean it just doesn’t happen that way except for what you’re talking about right here and the way this works, I mean in my opinion and tell me if I’m wrong, it’s because you have the right neutral experts that are coming in, the people like you, that know how to run the ship to keep things cool so that things don’t blow up, and nobody makes a mess of things.

Dr. Gaies: Absolutely. It’s a very structured process but it’s also very family-specific so we can adjust things depending on the families needs. If we have a family that isn’t able to sit in the same room at that point, at the same time, we can make some adjustments and still make it work. If we have families in which one spouse lives out of state, we often can do things telephonically, with video conference, we can do a lot of work offline which means we work directly with the professionals without gathering the team, and then we plan perhaps one meeting where everyone’s together.

Dr. Gaies: I’ve been involved in collaborative divorces where I’ve never actually met one of the spouses in person because they participated remotely but we still got to an agreement.

Christian D: Right on. And the reason I’m asking you to tell us about the process, the collaborative process, partly because you’re here and you agreed to come and chat with me but also because you have a book that I believe just came out right?

Dr. Gaies: Yeah this came out earlier this year and it’s a book written specifically for folks who are considering which divorce process might work for them, and it describes the collaborative divorce process in detail, really from start to finish. It’s written as a frequently asked question book or guide so each page is a different question that people typically ask about the process, and then it goes on to give an answer to that question, so it’s a good initial resource for anyone who’s thinking about the collaborative divorce process for their family.

Christian D: And I know that my firm’s ordered a couple of these from you, because it gives us something, if we have a client that’s thinking about the process, and chatted with them about it, because we think the client might be a good fit for this process, it’s nice to give them something so they can really understand what it is that they’re getting into, and hopefully say that’s a perfect fit for them, and then we can move forward.

Dr. Gaies: Absolutely.

Christian D: So I appreciate that. And Jeremy’s book is a Clear and Easy Guide to Collaborative Divorce, and so you’re obviously the perfect fit to come in here and chat with us about this. So I appreciate it. And while we’re talking about books, Jeremy’s also written Mindful Co-Parenting, with Dr. Morris, Dr. Jim Morris. He’s in Tampa Bay too right?

Dr. Gaies: Yeah Jim has an office in Clearwater and an office in Tampa. He’s a very close colleague and a very good friend of mine and because we had been working with families going through divorce and including families with high levels of conflict, we decided that we wanted to have a resource for those families that would help them think about how they want to work together, how they can reduce their conflict, how they can write a parenting plan together, and how they can work as a team for their children’s benefit.

Dr. Gaies: So we said there wasn’t really book out there that we felt met that need, so we wrote that book and it’s been very well received. I give it out to every family that has minor children so that they can learn more on their own about how best to govern themselves as they work for their children’s benefit.

Christian D: Yeah, this book is awesome. I can tell you it’s awesome. We purchased, I mean we’ve given these out to families that we think it can help, to a lot of our clients, and you know we, I’m always going to other divorce attorney‘s offices because that’s the deal right, we’re either meeting to talk about a case, or we’re meditating, or we’re all gathered together in a collaborative divorce function, we all need a place to meet, and this book is on almost every attorney’s bookshelves, and I think that’s a really big compliment.

Dr. Gaies: Yes.

Christian D: I think that’s like the compliment.

Dr. Gaies: I’m a big fan of reading, of people reading to learn about their current situation. So, it doesn’t have to be these books. If folks want to find a different book I encourage them strongly to read, learn about how you can do the best for your family. There’s a lot of good information out there, and talking to professionals to get their information from the start, is not the most cost-efficient way to do it. The best way to do it is to go through some reading. These books and many other books are available in your local libraries, so you don’t have to buy it, you can just go pick up a copy from the library but I always encourage parents and anyone going through a divorce, read about that process. It may be the first time you’re going through a divorce, it may not be the first time, but the more you learn about it the better the choices you can make for yourself and for your children.

Christian D: Yeah absolutely. And talking about what’s cost-effective, like that’s the inspiration for why we’re doing this video series is that instead of me repeating something over and over and over to a client and ultimately they may have to pay for this conversation, doesn’t it make a lot more sense to go right to the horse’s mouth so to speak, find the expert who knows exactly what we’re talking about? We’ll chat about it, and then my clients can watch it on their own time.

Dr. Gaies: Sure and I really appreciate that.I think it’s a great resource for families. I also want to point out that attorneys who are aware of and open to all the different options for families are a tremendous asset for all of us. So as a neutral professional I am thrilled when there are attorneys like you who are putting this information out there, letting people know of their choices so that when they do have to move forward they can make the best choices possible. So I appreciate your awareness of this, you’re making other people aware of it.

Christian D: Oh stop Jeremy, stop.

Dr. Gaies: It’s good for everyone. Look we’re all trying to do good in the world. This is not about are making a living, this is about trying to help other people find a path. There are a lot of other things that you could be doing, there are other things I could be doing, but I know that we and our colleagues do this because we really care of helping families find a path out of the jungle. And when a divorce starts in many cases it’s like being lost in a dark and scary jungle, having people to guide them legally, having people to guide them in terms of family matters gives, I think it’s a calling for us and I think we need to take great responsibility in that and so putting the word out the way you are is wonderful and I’m glad to be able to be a part of it.

Christian D: Well thank you I appreciate it.

Christian D: So absolutely appreciate it right because divorce is like a trip wire. If it goes wrong like it can really go wrong and have devastating impacts on families for years, and years.

Dr. Gaies: Even generationally. I mean kids who grow up with parents who are at war with each other, when it comes time for them to have children, they carry those scars and often they’re not even aware of the impact that has on their children, and in turn it goes even beyond that so I can’t tell you how many folks that I meet who talk about what happened when they were growing up and their parents got divorced and they didn’t have a good experience, and often times that’s why they choose a process that’s going to be more peaceful, more amicable, less disruptive for their children.

Christian D: And I believe that you wrote, it’s been a while since I picked this up, I believe you mention in here that it’s not the divorce that’s the problem. Sometimes you need, sometimes there’s an unhealthy relationship, and it’s better for the kids if that relationship is terminated. It’s how the parents act after the divorce, or during the divorce process that’s the real problem, right?

Dr. Gaies: You’re absolutely right. Not every family can stay together. There are circumstances in which two spouses simply can’t live together in a peaceful way. And if they’re not able to do it in a peaceful way, that has very negative effects on children. How they get divorced is what determines the children’s outcome, not the fact that they got divorced. The research clearly shows that if parents, in essence, follows the rules of working together as a team, not putting the kids in the middle, not using the kids as pawns, not saying negative things about the parent to the children, the children have very similar outcomes after divorce to children whose parent’s never got divorced and didn’t have conflict. But when you start to add in high levels of conflict of the children being tools in the process, that’s when kids really get hurt, and the harm can be lifelong. We want to avoid that, so we want to use every opportunity we can to educate parents of how to get divorced, regardless of what approach they use, and how to be good co-parents to each other for the long run.

Christian D: Absolutely. Well, Jeremy thank you so much for coming in, chatting with me about this and helping educate our viewers about the collaborative divorce process.

Dr. Gaies: It’s been a pleasure.

Christian D: And again, thanks for being available when I have those really different questions that I need to find the right path when it comes to the mental health of a client, or maybe a client’s child and you’ve always been a great resource for me and my firm. So I appreciate that.

Dr. Gaies: I’ll always be happy to be there. Thanks so much.

Christian D: Thanks, man.