Considering how much calmer, cheaper, and more efficient a collaborative divorce is than one that goes to trial, it seems almost illogical that anyone would opt to end their marriage in the courtroom. But one of the reasons more people don’t try collaboration is because they just don’t know it exists.
Maria Imbalzano and Corinne Cooke, two attorneys at Stark & Stark in Lawrenceville, want to change that. The women, who work together on many divorce cases, will present “Divorce Alternatives: Collaborative Divorce, Mediation, Arbitration and Other Options,” a free seminar on Wednesday, May 15, at 6 p.m. at Stark & Stark’s offices at 993 Lenox Drive. Call 609-895-7307 or E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cooke and Imbalzano have been working together for five years. Cooke grew up in Ewing and earned her bachelor’s in economics from Duquesne in 2004. Although she liked Pittsburgh, she felt homesick and decided to get her law degree from Villanova. After graduating in 2007 she clerked for state Superior Court Judge Michael Haas in Burlington County until 2008.
Imbalzano grew up in Hamilton and Trenton, where her father, Joseph, was the barber nearly everyone in Trenton knew. She earned her bachelor’s in psychology at Rutgers in 1976. She had designs on becoming a counselor, but “at the end of Rutgers, I needed to work.” She attended a paralegal school in Philadelphia that guaranteed a job to graduates in any city, or their money back. Imbalzano opted for New York, and landed a job at a Park Avenue firm.
She loved it, but realized that she could be an attorney herself. She then went to Fordham, where she earned her law degree. Between her second and third years, Imbalzano’s father wanted her to return to the Trenton area, so she took a summer job at Stark & Stark. By the fall, she was offered a full-time job and has stayed for 30 years. In 2008, Cooke signed on as Imbalzano’s assistant and the two have busily spread the word about the kinder alternatives to traditional divorce.
Collaborative divorce. In a traditional divorce, husbands and wives take sides, hire their own teams of experts, and enter a lengthy, costly, most likely bitter fight. In the collaborative process, Imbalzano says, the spouses and their attorneys sit down together before any court paperwork is filed to hash out where the chips will fall. Sometimes accountants are brought in to discuss the division of finances (particularly if a business is involved) or therapists come in to counsel couples and their children.
The idea is to meet without court intervention and to work out the details of a divorce independent of the court system and its time tables. “The whole goals is not to take positions,” Imbalzano says. Court trials can take months, mainly due to an overall shortage in judges and the fact that in New Jersey there is no such thing as continuous trial dates for divorce cases. Court dates come up at most once a week.
The long wait to settle a marriage in court is one of the things that spikes the costs of a divorce case, Cooke says. She and Imbalzano currently are involved in a litigated divorce case that has been going for four years. Seven motions and countermotions have been filed, and each motion filed adds another $5,000 to $7,000 to the bill, she says. The pair began litigation in the case in October and have only been to court nine times (and not at all between November and late February).
Whenever trials like this occur, attorneys have to essentially restart the case every time they go back to court, which takes more time and incurs more cost. Cooke says the case should settle this year, but they’re not even halfway through. And so far, the bill is up to $400,000.
A collaborative divorce allows all parties to meet when its convenient for them, not for the courts. As a result, the process is much more efficient. Meetings can be held on successive days, allowing accounts, businesses, custody matters, and whatever else to be resolved before the paperwork is filed, Imbalzano says. This cuts time and cost significantly, but there is no direct comparison to traditional divorce, she says. The cost of a collaborative divorce depends on several factors, but overall, “it is much more cost-effective to go through collaborative divorce, mediation, or arbitration,” Cooke says.
Mediation and arbitration. Mediation is mandated by the state in divorce cases, and Imbalzano is also a mediator. But a mediator is not allowed to give legal advice, even if she is an attorney herself. Imbalzano recommends couples hire an attorney to answer legal questions, but her main job as a mediator is to get couples to rationally settle and reach a memorandum of understanding. This can then be taken to attorneys and turned into a marital settlement agreement. Then the divorce filing can take place.
Imbalzano says that judges tend to be kind to divorce cases in which amicable settlement has been reached, and the process could be just a few months. The only catch about time is how long it will take the courts to actually get to a case.
Unlike mediators, arbitrators determine who will get what in a divorce settlement. They act more like the judge, Imbalzano says, but the settlement is reached in a less formal setting, away from the court’s schedule. Cooke says that one advantage of arbitration is that if there is a complicated issue to resolve, like a business, an expert in the matter can help streamline the settlement.
Not for everyone. Lest you think alternative divorces are everyone’s ticket, know that attorneys such as Imbalzano and Cooke screen prospective candidates for the alternative process. In collaborative divorce, both parties must be on board with the idea and each spouse must have a collaborative attorney. If the other side does not, she says, she must proceed with litigation.
In some cases, spouses are not emotionally able to sit down in a room and calmly work out the details of a divorce. In other cases, each side becomes so entrenched in their positions that only a judge can make the decisions for them. The four-year trial on which Cooke and Imbalzano are working fits this mold. “It has to be settled in court,” Imbalzano says. “There’s no other way.”
As more people become aware of alternatives to rancorous divorce trials, processes such as collaborative divorce are finding their way into more law firms. But it is unlikely that many will make a living practicing only collaborative law. Some do, of course, but Imbalzano doesn’t see it happening for most working attorneys. It’s probably something to do in semi-retirement, she says.