A bill to keep divorcing couples out of court may or may not pass this legislative session.
But couples navigating the tough terrain of a split should take heart regardless.
Introduced by Rep. John Lesch and Sen. Sandy Pappas, both St. Paul DFLers, the “cooperative private divorce” bill joins other innovative ideas aimed at helping couples uncouple without losing their morals, money or minds.
As Lesch and Pappas promote their bill, a bipartisan group of legislators, family lawyers and shared-parenting advocates is optimistic that some of the reforms it’s promoting also will pass this year, including a long-overdue recognition of the essential role of fathers.
That’s not all. I recently spent an hour getting schooled in a Web-based tool called Wevorce, a system that gives power and trust back to divorcing couples, while protecting their legal safety net, and their kids, at about a third the cost of a typical divorce.
If none of this sounds remarkable, you’ve likely never been divorced.
“It’s a different family law world than that of years ago,” said Ron Ousky, a leader in collaborative practices, and the first Wevorce “architect” in Minnesota. “We don’t agree on everything, but we can agree that the old system didn’t work.”
Old system? Think acrimonious and winner takes all. New system? Think cooperative and child-centered.
Yet, Ousky remains surprised by how few divorcing couples use alternatives to the traditional two-lawyer, adversarial approach.
“There’s still a notion that you have to fight to get that good outcome,” Ousky said. “The reality is the opposite. I see people using collaborative approaches getting better settlements. But there’s no way to get the word out, and most big [law] firms aren’t talking about it.”
Those firms might want to rethink that position to stay relevant in the 21st century.
“We are a very different vintage, with fundamentally different beliefs as to the role family courts should play,” said Michael Boulette, a 29-year-old Minneapolis family lawyer.
“We grew up during the peak of the divorce boom,” said Boulette, a millennial who joked he wanted to be a therapist but was “too bossy.” “We come to the law practice with a very different perspective.”
That perspective is less acrimonious and more egalitarian, “with fewer of the truly nasty custody battles” of the previous generation.
Divorce, he predicts, will continue to become more cooperative and more private, “with more ways to help couples reach agreements on their own.”
Under the private divorce bill, couples would submit an online form, then wait 90 days to be certain of their decision. They’d then submit their agreements on finances, property, children and alimony. Couples could modify their agreement at any point, and later decide to go to court.
Although few divorces are litigated, “there is the long shadow of the court over everything,” said Bill Doherty, professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota.
Doherty, who has devoted his career to saving marriages, supports the Lesch/Pappas bill, which began as the Divorce Without Courts project.
“A small minority of people will still need the courts,” Doherty said, “but the majority of people could benefit from this. People write wills and execute them without a judge reviewing them. Same thing here.”
The Wevorce movement
Michelle Crosby already has put the theory into practice. When she was 9, a lawyer asked her which of her divorcing parents she’d choose to live with if stranded on a desert island. Wisely, Crosby refused to answer. The trauma of the day, though, was her catalyst to attend law school, then launch Wevorce (www.wevorce.com) in 2013.
Couples can access Wevorce on their iPhone or computer, moving first through a comprehensive questionnaire that takes into account 18 personal styles and dynamics, which “allow us to catch up very quickly,” Crosby said.
And not just catch up. Idaho-based Crosby uses those profiles to estimate how much time the couple will need to get through the process — with 97 percent accuracy.
“There are always two perceptions,” Crosby said. “Most people are in the victim position. ‘I’ve been wronged.’ We help them to unpack that story line,” by offering lawyers, mediators, financial advisers and therapists, and more than 2,000 relevant articles online.
Couples are guided through “sustainable” co-parenting plans, due diligence, financial mapping and a final review, meeting regularly with professionals. The average Wevorce cost is $4,000 to $8,000, completed in an average of 88 days. That compares with the current national average of $27,000 for a divorce, with negotiations often dragging into years.
About 300 couples have used Wevorce in 25 states. Ousky, whose practice is located in Edina, already has been approached by a couple interested in Wevorce. “It’s maybe the greatest software I’ve ever seen,” Ousky said. “They’ve got a really good concept, but it’s still in the early stages.”
Caroline Rustigian-Bruderer, 51, and Marc Bruderer, 50, of Laguna Beach, Calif., completed Wevorce in four months for $7,000. But saving a bundle wasn’t the most important aspect.
Bruderer had been married once before, experiencing a first divorce that was “ugly, emotional and fraught with lawyers.”
He calls Wevorce “a game-changer, like Uber.” When there was friction this time, the Wevorce team was “incredible at pointing us in the right direction. The counseling we got was very valuable. We’re just trying to get it done and not create more resentment.”
Today they co-parent equally and get along well, they said. “You don’t have to do it in the old model,” Rustigian-Bruderer said. “This gives people the feeling that they don’t have to be stuck.”
What’s best for kids
Miki Kashtan would heartily agree. The co-founder of Bay Area Nonviolent Communication was brought in to facilitate a bipartisan group of Minnesota lawmakers, family lawyers and father’s rights activists after Gov. Dayton vetoed a family law reform bill in 2012.
She might have had an easier time in the Middle East.
But after two years and nearly 600 hours of Kashtan’s collaborative efforts, the “child custody dialogue group” was able to revise “best-interest guidelines” to acknowledge the importance of both parents, and to place stronger consequences on parents who ignore their ex’s court-ordered parenting time.
One of the biggest victories demonstrates just how daunting Kashtan’s task was. The presumption of “at least” 25 percent parenting time (typically for dads) has been modified to read “a minimum” of 25 percent parenting time.
Rep. Peggy Scott, R-Andover, a participant and longtime advocate of family law reform, said the “seemingly small language tweak” is a big shift, with the percentage no longer a ceiling, but a floor.
Charlie Hurd, a divorced father, has been watching the group’s efforts closely. He understands the reality of baby steps. “Laws tend to follow the culture, rather than the culture following the laws,” he said.
“Over the last 30 years, fathers have been recognized as very important to children and families. The court system is gradually beginning to recognize this. The bill does not give the 50/50 shared parenting presumption that we were looking for. But the best interest standards were changed to include the importance of both parents. If parents go away thinking that they got a fair deal, there will be much less ongoing acrimony.”
As all three admirable efforts move forward, let’s keep that goal front and center.