January and February tend to be a busy time of year to hear from new clients, mostly because people do not wish to initiate a separation before the December holidays but then they make New Year agreements with themselves to build up the courage to call a family/divorce attorney for the first time early in the New Year. This year has been a bit different for me because many of those clients are former clients—those who have been divorced for years in some cases, and new issues have arisen which they want to discuss with me and try to resolve with their former spouses. It is satisfying to have clients return to have me act as their attorney, and to a Collaborative Process of settling issues constructively and out of court, which worked so well for them in the divorce that they have chosen to return to the process when these new issues arise.
Some recent examples include parents who are sending their first child away to college and need to clarify or modify their child support agreement, a parent who was laid off from her job and now wants to move with the children outside the NY metro area to find another job, a man who no longer wishes to share the parties’ vacation home in the Bahamas and he wants to be bought out, or the woman who never returned her husband’s painting to him after their divorce.
The Collaborative meetings regarding the return of the Husband’s painting are a great example of why informal, in-person meetings in the Collaborative Process can be so helpful for resolving family disputes, even many years after divorce.
The couple had been divorced for 6-7 years and their settlement agreement included the division of a small retirement account owned by the Husband, which had not been divided with the Wife since the divorce, as well as four paintings, which were part of an art collection the Husband created before the marriage and which the Wife was supposed to transfer to the Husband as part of their settlement agreement; but she was still holding one painting because the Husband hadn’t transferred his retirement account to her.
The simple solution: She should give him his painting back and he should transfer the portion of his retirement account he agreed to under their settlement contract. But if it was this easy, the parties could have “settled” on their own. In reality, the Wife was still really struggling with starting a new life after the divorce, therefore she “released” one painting at a time to the Husband after getting divorced, as she slowly adjusted emotionally to walking away from her relationship with her husband. In our meetings, she talked about what “good care” she had taken of the paintings and asked how he could possibly want her to leave “empty walls” in her home as she gave him back the paintings. It was so clear how the paintings represented something so much deeper for her than simply “the Husband’s property” and I suspect the Husband, even in his anger, understood this was the case for the Wife and hadn’t legally enforced the agreement over the 6-7 year period since his divorce either.
Once the Wife had a small opportunity to discuss how she felt about the paintings, her life since her divorce and her view of her future, the parties softened, the Husband showed some empathy, and they came to an agreement to make the “exchange”.
I wasn’t expecting the Wife to be carrying the wrapped painting on the day they arrived in my conference room to sign their agreement. The Wife asked the Husband if he “wanted to see it since it had been so long”. They stood across the conference table from each other and slowly unwrapped the painting together. As they did, he talked about when he started collecting his paintings. She talked about their first dates where she was so impressed that he had an art collection on the walls of his apartment. He reminded her of where the painting was hanging over the fireplace in their first apartment together. She reminded him of where they placed it in their new apartment after their first son was born. It was really very touching to observe.
“Settlement” required two meetings before the day the parties signed their agreement and transferred the painting. I can’t imagine how this might have played out if one of them had sued the other instead!