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by Stephanie L.H. Barrie
The look and feel of divorce has gone through a significant change in the 21st century. It’s still not lollipops and roses due to the feelings involved, but today’s divorce looks more like doing your taxes than a Hollywood drama. Even Hollywood isn’t Hollywood anymore, with the use of terms like “conscious uncoupling,” as used by Gwyneth Paltrow. This all describes how couples are now trying a new and different approach to return to being single—even taking the opportunity to forge two joyful homes from an unhappy one.
Today, with agreement, parents are likely to never see the inside of a courtroom. Many couples waive the old 90-day “cooling off period,” and file all documents the same day. Judges are more likely to see parenting agreements that refer to “Mom’s time” and “Dad’s time” (or first names in cases of same-sex separations) rather than calling the parties “Petitioner” and “Respondent” or labeling one a “Non-Custodial Parent.”
Since 2007, over two-thirds of Oregon’s family law cases have involved people representing themselves. In 2012 over 83 percent of the family-related cases filed had at least one non-represented party. In response, Portland courts have started helping parents help themselves by eliminating the long, drawn-out timeline of trials that involve outside decision-makers such as traditional lawyers and judges. Currently, parents decide together, if they can, what a healthy and fair parenting time arrangement will look like. Then, the number of overnights are mathematically calculated along with income, and the resulting child support calculation sheet is attached with the courts’ other mandatory documents.
For families that need help, the lawyers and judges will always be there, but the system encourages parents to work it out themselves. First, the court mandates one-on-one mediation for every filing in which a parenting agreement isn’t already accomplished. Furthermore, many courts provide evaluations of both parents when cases are hotly contested or complex. These expert opinion reports often help lead the parties to settlement rather than trial.
Concerned friends or family members can turn the rising tide of emotion by reminding the parents (and the kids) that Mom(s) and Dad(s) are in the process of becoming single parents. While the change will be new and different, which is always hard, it doesn’t have to be the devastating life event that many automatically presume it to be. Choosing the terms and tone of the new family agreement is a golden opportunity for parents to create a life of joy and acceptance based in two separate homes.
To parents that worry that divorce is always tough on the kids, that’s not necessarily the case. Rather, it is how we move through the divorce that matters: how we express our differences and discuss and frame the situation. Divorce no longer carries the stigma or embarrassment for children that it once did in schools and social circles. For most children, stability, predictability, and knowing when they will see their parents next is of primary importance, followed closely by whether the new situation will impact playdates and time with friends.
When separating parents can craft a parenting schedule that creates two harmonious homes, the new court system provides a straightforward and nonintrusive way to make it official. An envelope containing the exact and complete set of necessary documents for your situation can be purchased for a small fee (usually $5) at your local courthouse, and filled out at home. In most cases, nearly all necessary forms are available online.
Child support no longer need be a contentious topic either. In today’s court, lawyers, judges, and parents alike go to the same website to enter income and overnights into a child support calculator that is used in the majority of all cases.
If the parents are not in agreement, but don’t wish to hire lawyers, more services are available. The Multnomah County court provides free mediation to help parents to make their own best decisions. If parents agree to a child-centered parenting plan at that meeting, the court mediator will write the agreement for the parents to attach to their court paperwork.
For traditionalists, filing a divorce or child custody case by hiring a lawyer is still available. These parents file first and talk later, usually through the attorneys, and pay $2,500–$5,000 each up front. The attorneys then customarily attempt to help the parents reach settlement by making a series of offers and counter offers, billing for their time at an hourly rate. If parents are angry with each other, or feel slighted, these divorces can cost many thousands of dollars.
In today’s divorce and separation, there is only one place where the court demands mandatory attendance. Both parents, together or separately, must attend a class taught by professionals to help families with tools and tricks available to support the children. In Multnomah County, the class is a 3.5-hour session focusing on legal issues, child development, conflict resolution, and community resources. In some states, such as Washington, the class may be taken online. In Washington County, Oregon, the class lasts eight weeks.
However, other than the one-time mandatory class, and for families who cannot afford or simply do not want an attorney, there are several creative alternatives to the standard six- to nine-month legal process. Self-representation, otherwise known as pro se representation, has become increasingly common. Lawyers are offering advice on an hourly basis to help people “uncouple.” Many websites provide clarity on how to protect the children and achieve a win-win arrangement for the future. Overall, the stereotypical role of a divorce lawyer is being phased out, as we continue to discuss how to approach becoming single in a manner that brings the children along into a happy and harmonious future.
Stephanie L.H. Barrie is a retired family law attorney and now works as a trusted legal advisor. She works with clients to plan out all issues surrounding transitions, challenges, and complications of life changes. http://www.HoffmanBarrie.com