I am excited to report that the Center for Out of Court Divorce, Denver, is going national. I’ve just joined the advisory committee of the fledgling institution, which I consider one of the most important innovations in divorce and positive co-parenting today.
I've spent the past week talking to Melinda Taylor, who served as the executive director of the Resource Center for Separating and Divorcing Families in Denver. After overseeing the nation’s first one-stop divorce and separation shop, Taylor is now helping bring the idea—and the reality—of the out-of-court divorce to more cities across the nation.
What’s so bad about divorce court?
It may sound appealing, the notion that a judge, a person who's paid to be fair, balanced and intelligent, will decide who gets what, making your spouse pay, literally, for all the unhappiness he or she has wrought. But for the vast majority of us, the court is the worst place to go to figure out a divorce or separation.
As Taylor notes, since the first family court was created in Ohio nearly 100 years ago, the adversarial system has proven a disaster for many families. Fighting in court over child support or visitation can create incredible loyalty conflicts in children, expose them to inflated critiques of each parent and leave them having to live with the often illogical parenting plans created in an adversarial context. High conflict between parents is one of the most damaging aspects to children in all family types. In divorce, the so called “final orders” handed down by a judge tend to be not so final; your kids’ wants and needs change over time, and a settlement hammered out in seething resentment can look downright crazy once the smoke clears.
Additionally, courts are overcrowded. There have been huge advances in the family court, as I write about in Splitopia, including self-help centers and court navigators. But budget cuts to the courts are shrinking these programs, and legal scholars see court-based resources as seriously inadequate for the needs of today's families.
The courtroom itself can harden bad feelings into hate. Judge Robert Hyatt, whom I interviewed for my book, describes the courtroom as a cold and alienating place that can make you want to “punch your way out of it,” rather than talk your way out of it.
Housing divorce in court is a remnant from the pre-no fault days, back when divorce was a punishment one spouse sought against the other for a crime, such as adultery or abandonment. Under no-fault law, divorce is more akin to a family reorganization. You’re seeking to restructure your family in the best way possible, just without the marriage part. While some people do need court protection—if divorcing a dangerous spouse, for example—most of us have no reason to be planning our children’s future in court, alongside desperate citizens seeking immediate help with needs such as restraining orders against violent abusers.
Divorce need not be a disaster for kids, but how you do it matters.
At the Resource Center for Separating and Divorcing Families, I met couples who’d entered the center fighting, but left something more like friends, or at least partners in parenting. The out-of-court idea is holistic; couples get financial and legal education, therapy if they need it, workshops for their children, a mediator to help them decide and divide. It’s a cooperative approach to helping a couple come apart. The couples I met gained more knowledge about the law and themselves through the divorce process as well as a clearer understanding of their financial situation, and a separation agreement and parenting plan that felt fair and logical. They left with optimism about their future as unmarried individuals, and as co-parents.
To read more about the out-of-court divorce, see this piece I wrote about the Resource Center and other efforts to improve the divorce process (after Gwyneth Paltrow’s announcement of her intention to part in a positive, constructive way).
Want to get involved in improving family life? Read more here.