By: Ray Reyes
TAMPA — He got the furniture. She got the car.
They split custody of their daughter and everybody’s happy.
The divorce of Tyler Nelson and Pamela Burton will be finalized on Friday, but they didn’t have to go through years of litigation or deal with months of acrimony to legally end their marriage.
The couple decided to have a collaborative divorce, an option designed to be smoother and less contentious than divorces that play out in a courtroom.
“It was a great thing,” said Nelson, 30. “We didn’t disagree on anything. There was nothing to fight about.”
Collaborative divorces were once available mostly to the wealthy, who were attracted to the option because of the privacy. Details are kept out of the public record because grievances aren’t aired out in court.
But the form of mediation is growing in popularity across the nation, according to the American Bar Association’s Family Law Section, and is becoming more affordable to middle-class families.
In the case of Nelson and Burton, the process was free — theirs is the first pro bono collaborative divorce in Florida.
“We wanted to provide this service to people who otherwise couldn’t afford an attorney,” said Nelson’s lawyer, Adam Cordover. “We are doing this pro bono to also spread the word about collaborative divorces.”
Here’s how the process, officially known as collaborative dispute resolution, works.
Nelson and Burton each retained their own attorneys. The two lawyers then chose a financial expert and a mental health professional while the couple agreed not to go to court.
Instead, all six people had a series of meetings where the lawyers acted more like problem solvers, the financial expert gathered information and offered advice, and the mental health counselor was like a referee, ensuring the meetings didn’t get combative.
Typically the only time a judge sees the couple is at the end, after both parties agree to terms. The judge signs the final order for divorce.
In legal terms, all marriages are civil unions and only the court can rule if a marriage is irretrievably broken, said Circuit Court Judge Catherine Catlin. That’s why all cases where marriages are dissolved — even collaborative divorces — have to come before a judge.
Catlin, a family law judge, said she’s a big fan of collaborative divorces.
“I’m in favor of anything that helps families resolve issues outside of an adversarial setting,” she said. “I like the concept of giving control back to the parties. They’re given the time and the forum to work things out.”
Burton’s lawyer said collaborative divorces can actually help a couple heal and move on with their lives.
“When you go to court, it’s a destructive process,” said Tampa-based attorney Joryn Jenkins. “Most divorces start with one party racing to the courthouse with their petition, trying to beat the other person. From the get-go, it’s war. But the collaborative process is a model that shows the couple how to get along and be reasonable.”
It’s also often less expensive than traditional divorces that go to court.
“You spend less in collaborative divorces because you’re not preparing for a series of hearings,” Cordover said. “You’re not tied to the court docket.”
Jenkins said collaborative divorces cost between $20,000 to $30,000. Normal divorces tend to range from $50,000 to $100,000.
Nelson said he’s happy Cordover took on his case for free and found the process to be mostly painless. Burton declined to comment.
Nelson said they took the collaborative divorce route because of their 7-year-old daughter, Emma. Dividing up the assets from their eight-year marriage, he said, was less important than being able to spend time with his daughter.
During the meetings, which lasted two months, both parties quickly agreed who would take over specific bills and how much alimony payments would be.
“Everything else was the material stuff,” Nelson said. “She took what she wanted to take, I took what I wanted to take. I kept the furniture. She got the car. I get my daughter every other week.”
Nelson said he and Burton were friends in high school but didn’t start dating until a few years after they graduated. In the beginning, the young couple seemed to agree on everything.
“We were into each other,” Nelson said. “Everything was going pretty good. We were on the same page. It just seemed right.”
Soon after they were married, the bickering began. It usually centered around “everyday things,” Nelson said, like money or bills.
“I thought she was the one,” he said. “Turned out I was wrong.”
Burton’s divorce case drew Jenkins’ attention. Jenkins and Cordover then agreed to take on the divorce proceedings pro bono to raise awareness of collaborative law.
Cordover said collaborative divorces started in the U.S. in Minnesota in the 1990s, then spread to California and Texas; some European countries were already allowing it.