Getting a divorce can be one of the most stressful times in a person’s life. While Maria P. Imbalzano does not suggest that divorce can be turned into an enjoyable process, she has found that a collaborative approach can be a far less stressful alternative.
Imbalzano and Corrine E. Cooke, lawyers at Stark & Stark, will lead two free events titled “Understanding the Difference Between a Collaborative Divorce and a Litigated Divorce” on Wednesday, November 16, from noon to 1 p.m., and Monday, November 21, 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. at the firm’s office, 993 Lenox Drive, Building 2, Lawrence. For more information or to register, visit www.stark-stark.com/events or call 609-896-9060.
The intention of a collaborative divorce is for both parties to work through their matters civilly, constructively, and with an open mind to available alternatives to settling issues. However, it’s not for everyone. A litigated divorce would be a better approach if one or both spouses are unwilling or unable to agree on anything unless a judge enters an order.
If someone is considering a divorce, Imbalzano would set up an initial meeting to review the available methods: mediation (facilitated by a neutral party), litigation (carried out by a lawsuit), and collaborative. If the party wants to proceed with a collaborative process and the other spouse agrees, each party would retain his or her own lawyer trained and qualified in collaborative divorce. It is essential, says Imbalzano, that each spouse agrees to be up front and to negotiate in good faith.
As attorneys, Imbalzano says they are there to unruffle feathers and have everyone feel safe in the room. “When I’m talking to the spouse, I’m not cross-examining him or her. My tone is much different. We’re not there to put them on the defensive,” she says.
Once both parties agree, they and their attorneys would have a four-way meeting to discuss their issues and to review the participation agreement. If the couple decides to end the process, both attorneys must step away from the case, and the couple would retain new attorneys for litigation. “However, your [collaborative] attorneys have a huge interest in settling your case,” Imbalzano says. “Our goal is for you to stay in the process and to resolve all your issues within the process.”
Another goal of the first meeting involves assigning a collaborative trained divorce coach who is a psychologist or licensed clinical social worker. He or she will work with all parties as a team member, and for couples with children, the coach will help with parenting and custody. Coaches are especially helpful with communication between the couples, focusing on listening skills and leading them away from counter-productive habits such as cutting each other off, disregarding the other’s feelings or dismissing the other’s suggestions as irrelevant.
When necessary, the team can include another professional, such as an accountant, real estate appraiser, business evaluator, or other expert.
Imbalzano, whose father owned a barber shop in Trenton and whose mother worked for the State Division of Pensions, became interested in law when working as a paralegal for a New York City firm after college. Impressed with her experience there, she earned a degree at Fordham University School of Law. Imbalzano has worked for Stark & Stark for more than 33 years and became involved in collaborative divorce about six years ago.
“Divorce is a very emotional area of law,” she says. Taking a case to court, she says, adds more stress to the situation. The process is expensive and time consuming. “When you bring a case to court you don’t get whole days, you get pieces of days,” she says, recalling the last case she tried, which involved 20 days of trial over an eight-month period. To make things worse, she didn’t get a decision on the case until two years later.
“I don’t want to go through that again and I don’t think any party who wants to get divorced should have to go through that,” she says In Imbalzano’s free time, she writes romance novels. Her most recently published book, “Dancing in the Sand,” takes place in New York City and has connections to Lawrenceville, where she and her husband live.
Her first book, “Unchained Memories” takes place in Princeton and is about an emergency room doctor and a medical malpractice lawyer.
As one who has dedicated years to her career, Imbalzano encourages couples thinking about a marital breakup to consider a collaborative divorce.
“I think that’s the way all divorces should go if at all possible. This process is meant to empower our clients,” she says, adding that it provides an environment for parties to speak up, to look at alternatives, and to craft the best agreement with both spouses and attorneys involved. Imbalzano says that as attorneys, they sit back a little bit and focus on what is important for everyone.