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Published November 26, 2012, 11:40 PM

A civil separation: Collaborative divorce aims for balanced approach

FARGO – A couple’s split can be messy and contentious, but some Fargo-Moorhead attorneys, mental health professionals and financial advisers are bringing a different way to divorce to the area.

By: Tracy Frank, INFORUM

FARGO – A couple’s split can be messy and contentious, but some Fargo-Moorhead attorneys, mental health professionals and financial advisers are bringing a different way to divorce to the area.

Collaborative divorce is an approach in which the divorcing couple and attorneys agree to stay out of court, exchange information honestly and work together to find the best solution for the couple and their children.

“Our system is really good at applying pressure toward more peaceful resolutions,” said Michael Gjesdahl, a family law attorney with Gjesdahl Law in Fargo.

With collaborative divorce, a couple works with a team to help ensure the financial, emotional and legal security of both parties and their children.

Financial specialists review assets and incomes and help plan feasible financial options as well as work through issues like the tax implications of divorce.

“When people are financially stable after a divorce, it makes them feel much more confident about their future,” said Angie McCarthy, a financial adviser with Ameriprise Financial Services in Fargo.

Mental health professionals work as divorce coaches and child specialists. Divorce coaches help their clients manage the emotional turmoil of divorce and focus on their plans and goals. Child specialists help children express their feelings and concerns about the divorce and make sure their voices are heard when working with the collaborative divorce team.

“As counselors, we see a lot of times the damage and struggles of kids who are living with parents who are still in conflict during and following divorce,” said Peter Moynihan, a child specialist and divorce coach with Solutions Behavioral Healthcare Professionals in Moorhead.

“We’re all interested in minimizing the long-term risk factors for families and children and want to engage in a process that has more of a protective factor for families and give people more control in their divorce process,” said Krislea Wegner, a divorce coach and child specialist with Wegner Psychological and Therapeutic Services in Fargo.

“This process tries to create an intervention at the front-end to avoid a lot of those potential negative factors,” Wegner adds.

It can be extremely difficult to resolve issues after a couple has been through months and even years of litigation, said Carolyn Meske, a divorce coach and child specialist with Solutions Behavioral Healthcare Professionals in Moorhead.

“Our intent is to help make it as nondestructive as possible,” she said.

If after attempting the collaborative process the couple still decides to go through a divorce in court, the attorneys involved withdraw from the case.


Collaborative divorce has been around for a while. Minneapolis lawyer Stuart Webb founded the approach in 1990 as a way to help his clients settle and negotiate their problems outside the courtroom and avoid the road blocks and frustrations he kept running into by settling divorce issues in court, according to collaborativedivorce.net.

But the method is still new to the Fargo-Moorhead area. The group of Fargo-Moorhead attorneys, mental health professionals and financial advisers went through training with Collaborative Family Law out of Minneapolis earlier this year and now offers the service locally.

“Employers are starting to look at it as a model because they know their employees are taken off track by the divorce process and if there’s some way of helping them not be so completely stressed out, they will have more energy and attention for their jobs,” said Gail Nelson, a divorce coach with Journey Counseling in Fargo. “People are realizing this process helps everybody – the kids, the employer, the families.”

One of the biggest differences between traditional divorce and collaborative divorce is in a traditional divorce the parties are focused on filing motions like temporary custody, child-support and alimony and putting themselves in a better position for litigation, said Krista Andrews, a family law attorney with Anderson, Bottrell, Sanden & Thompson law firm in Fargo.

Even the process of being served divorce papers can feel like an attack that immediately puts someone in a defensive position, the attorneys and mental health professionals said.

But the collaborative process changes the entire emotional dynamic, Wegner said.

Alyssa Krakowski, of Bloomington, Minn., said having a team help guide her through the process of divorce was one of the biggest benefits to using collaborative divorce.

“I just felt really supported,” she said.

She said judging from her own experience and the experience of friends of hers who have divorced, the collaborative process seems the healthiest way to go through it.

“It really did keep it more civil,” Krakowski said. “It did keep it more amicable between us.”

With a collaborative divorce, everyone is focused on restructuring the family, Andrews said.

“From the get-go, it doesn’t get amped up right away,” she said. “The most striking difference is the tone of the meeting. You can openly discuss things with the other attorney. We’re all on the same page. There’s nothing adversarial in that room because we’re all there simply to get the case settled.”

Where the traditional approach is more lawyer-led, the collaborative process is led by the clients, Gjesdahl said.

The traditional system is adversarial by design, he said.

“The benefit of this is you can create your own solution rather than having a judge impose a solution,” said Timothy McLarnan, a family law attorney with McLarnan & Skatvold law firm in Moorhead.


Learn more about collaborative divorce or to find local collaborative divorce professionals, visit: www.collaborativedivorce.net, www.collaborativepractice.com or www.collaborativelaw.org.