Former Sen. Bill Frist and his wife, Karyn, recently announced their divorce. It appears they did something very difficult, very well.
The Frist divorce is notable in a number of ways that will benefit the senator and the soon-to-be former Mrs. Frist greatly in future. It was about as private as can be. There is a minimum of public filings. Mrs. Frist submitted a bare-bones petition asking for Tennessee's version of no-fault divorce. It was dignified. Sen. Frist simultaneously answered, admitting with sadness that their differences are beyond repair.
One prominent feature is probably unnoticed by most. Sen. Frist announced that he and his wife reached a divorce agreement "through a collaborative law process." Collaborative divorce is the newest alternative to a painful, long, expensive and public divorce.
How people get divorced makes a difference. Some may accept aggressive tactics as routine. But they only make a difficult situation worse. For example, elevated levels of discord during divorce significantly increase the chances children will come out of divorce with anxiety and depression.
When parties choose to proceed collaboratively, they decide from the beginning that they want something better, a negotiated settlement. So much so that they enter an agreement that the lawyers they hire will not go to court with them if they cannot come to terms. A premium is put on reaching consensus. For the lawyers, the mark of success is reaching a working, negotiated lasting settlement.
In a collaborative session, the parties meet face to face. It can be hard work. Often a neutral third party, trained to keep difficult discussions under control, meets with the couple and their lawyers in an effort to identify goals. Later, the parties propose and discuss options. Neutral financial advisers are often key members of the team.
Working with such a team may sound like an expensive process fit only for the wealthy. Seasoned collaborative attorneys disagree. Kevin Fuller, a top Dallas matrimonial lawyer, says he had 56 collaborative cases in a three-year period. Concurrently, he had three cases he described as “go-get-‘ems.” He calculated that the fees from the three go-get-‘ems exceeded the fees in all 56 collaborative cases combined. Collaborative efficiency is the key.
Collaborative divorce is new to Nashville. The Middle Tennessee Collaborative Alliance (www.mtcollab.com), of which I am vice president, has a number of collaboratively trained lawyers, mental health professionals and financial consultants. Each is committed to high standards. Others hold themselves out as collaborative, but the distinguishing characteristic of a real collaborative divorce is the agreement to not go to court.
Bill and Karyn Frist may have untied the knot. But they will always be connected through their children and grandchildren and common loved ones. The way they chose to divorce will give them a much better chance of putting aside their differences, perhaps long enough one day to dance together at a child's wedding.
Irwin J. Kuhn, an attorney and mediator, is a member of Dobbins Venick Kuhn & Byassee PLLC.
September 18, 2012