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The benefits of including Professional Neutrals in your negotiations — Collaborative Conversations

June 1, 2021 Podcast

As part of the Collaborative Team, Professional Neutrals are independent and represent the interests of both parties. Psychologist, Danielle Lundberg and Financial Advisor, Julie Gray explain their roles within the Interdisciplinary Collaborative Practice process.

Transcript

(HOST)  I’m Wallace Long. Welcome to Collaborative Conversations, a podcast that looks into the Interdisciplinary Collaborative Practice approach for separating couples.

A collaborative team consists of each party’s lawyer, along with others who are independent and represent the interests of both parties. These are professional neutrals. In this episode, I speak with two professional neutrals, Psychologist DANIELLE LUNDBERG and Financial Adviser JULIE GRAY. You’ll hear about their roles as part of the collaborative team, as well as examples of the tailored outcomes they’ve been able to achieve through the ICP process.

Interdisciplinary Collaborative Practice is a process where, in conjunction with each party’s lawyer, couples work alongside professionals who bring the skills required to resolve each family’s unique situation in an efficient, respectful and dignified way. The Collaborative Conversations Podcast is brought to you by the Australian Association of Collaborative Professionals.

(HOST) Julie and Daniel, welcome.

(JULIE, DANIELLE) Thank you, Wallace.

(HOST) I’m looking forward to speaking to you both today. Danielle, can I start with you? When couples are separating, what is first and foremost in their minds?

(DANIELLE) I think sometimes couples are just surviving when they first separate. It’s a huge decision. It’s emotional. For some people, it’s a decision that they might not have made or been part of making. So for them it can be very overwhelming. For other people who are perhaps prepared, or for some couples who have got that same point at the same time, then they’re thinking about the future and they’re thinking about what their future looks like.

If they’ve got children, they’re thinking about how the children are going to spend time with both of them. They’re probably thinking about how they’re going to parent on their own. They may not have thought about how they’re going to co-parent, so there’s a lot that goes through people’s minds at that point of separation, and it can be incredibly overwhelming.

(HOST) Julie, what are the financial considerations at this point?

(JULIE) I find their concerns are very much focused towards their finances going forward, they’re worrying about their immediate financial survival and the reality of how their future may look for them. So the worry is, where are they going to be, from the immediate separation, and what they’re going, how they’re going to afford to move forward and what their life is going to look like.

(HOST) As couples navigate through separation, what are the various approaches available to them?

(JULIE) By the very nature, separation and the divorce are often accompanied by disappointment, hostility and resentment. And often this puts everyone involved under a great deal of stress. But the process of ending a relationship doesn’t have to be a destructive as it often is in the regular court system. So going to court to resolve disputes is very expensive, as we know, time consuming and also rather stressful. Plus, the results may not be what anyone may have wanted or expected.

We know that the Australian Government are encouraging separating couples to choose alternate ways of reaching decisions regarding children and finances, rather than going through the court. Needs to be formal or informal. The various pathways other than court for separating couples can take depend on the needs and personal situation, and these can be collaboration, mediation, family dispute resolution, roundtable discussions or even trying to work it out themselves, which is often referred to as kitchen table discussions. The decisions being made during the separation process will impact the individual’s life and their lives of their children for years and years to come. So the best way to make these decisions is with the right type of professional support, which is focused towards solutions and outcomes rather than blame.

(HOST) You both work as Professional Neutrals within the Interdisciplinary Collaborative Practice approach. Can you explain what a Professional Neutral is, and the benefits you bring to separating couples?

(JULIE) Professional Neutrals are independent. And so if you put a professional such as myself and Danielle, we can bring to the table the independence that’s required to provide the support, plus the drilling down to the factual information, and allow each of the individual couple to explore and understand where their finances are situated. So in this situation, they’re taking their assuming control, and they’re able to make some valued decisions as they go forward.

(DANIELLE) The term neutral too, is what it is. We’re not on one side or the other. We’re there for both clients, we’re not like the lawyers who are there representing or advocating for their clients. We’re there to support both people.

In my role as a neutral being a psychologist, I have two functions broadly. One is in the meeting. So when we all come together with lawyers and financial person such as Julie, I chair the meeting. So and by doing that, I’m looking at communication between the lawyers and the clients or between the team to make sure we’re clear. To make sure the couples have respectful conversations, to make sure they’re getting the information that they need to make sure that emotionally, they are in a space where they can make clear, informed decisions and equally when they feel like they’re in control, and they can ask questions as well.

So that’s my role for the neutral person in the mediation or the round table discussion or the collaboration as it’s called. The other role I have as a neutral, as I work with both parents to formulate what’s called a parenting plan. And that can encompass everything from talking to parents about, how do you explain to your children that you’re separating, and how do you explain it in a way that sets them up well for the future that they still feel and know that their family structure hasn’t broken down. So while Mum and Dad might not be living in the same house, their families the same and Mum and Dad still love them, and they can still love Mum and Dad.

Then we talk about how the children will spend time with both parents, and, you know, this is a really challenging time because people are used to having access to their children all the time. So I talk to them about what their children need, developmentally, how it works with their jobs, how it works with where they’re going to live. How can they stay at the same school if it’s possible? And we look at the children’s lives going forward into household, and we document that so people come away from the process knowing, what’s going to happen at Christmas time. And we’ve had a really thoughtful discussion about what are the traditions that you want to continue, what’s important for the children.

So as a neutral I’m there for both people, both in the meetings and outside of the meetings.

(HOST) Danielle, you’ve described a thoughtful process when working with parents say, to formulate a parenting plan. Do you see ICP as being a better process for children?

(DANIELLE) Absolutely. Without a doubt, and I think we can start the process and children’s needs might be very different in the initial stages of separation to what they are later on, when couples are separated, but even maybe six months. So I can make with parents and we can put in interim parenting arrangements where we’re just helping the children and supporting them to adjust to new arrangements. And then they can come back and see me and we can talk about what’s been working, what hasn’t been working and how we can tweak it.

I was working with a couple yesterday. They have four children that were very different from 11 right down to three, and we were talking about personality, temperament, special needs, educational ability. I was really trying to get an understanding of what those children needed. Now, if you were to go through the court system one, usually you come out with something that is set. Sometimes it’s incremental, but there’s no review process. Two, often developmental needs are considered, but sometimes there’s not enough time to consider personality. Or you might actually have a report writer who do a fantastic job, but they’re seeing the children once. The other thing that we can do in this process is I can call in what’s called a Child Specialist to talk to the children and find out what their experience is, what they’re worried about. If parents have been separated for a little while, what’s working well, what’s not working well?

We’re never asking children to choose. Parents remain parents and make decisions for their children. But this is very much about the parents are the experts in their children. And I bring the research, and the ideas and the information for us to craft a parenting plan that’s going to be robust and the individualised.

(HOST) Julie, do you have a short and long term approach to the finances? And specifically, what do you consider when working with couples?

(JULIE) Absolutely. We look at the immediate need and that’s very, very important with the finances because we have to examine the financial requirements that they need while they’re moving through this process. There’s discretionary and non-discretionary expenditure and I dig deep into that to understand what income is available, what money is available, cash availability to support them through this process and to ensure that there is a surplus, or at least an equalisation to support the children and the parents as they move through this.

We find that one parent will move out of the house. So we need to look at what the cost of the rental. We have to add that into their normal expenditure, there are mortgages to be paid. There’s other debt to be covered. We have to hold them and keep them on a cushion while we support them through this. And it’s so important to do that. So the immediate financial needs are very, very important and they need to be addressed first and then once we’ve got that secure and everyone has been a good place, then I start to work with them as an independent together and verify all their financial information.

We’re checking back all the time to make sure that things are okay in the home and the children are being provided with everything that they need. Then I will work with them to review and discuss the data that I’ve gathered to ensure that each of them are fully aware and clearly understanding the overall financial situation. We then look at possible selling costs of major assets if they need to be realised and any capital gain a loss. And then we look at the investment and the debt and the superannuation. I’m very focused on having them both fully informed before they start to decide on anyway that they’re going to divide their assets.

Then I find it’s really important to look at their future household cash flows as it provides a valuable insight to the income and expenditure management. And it also allows them a view towards their future debt capabilities. I work with each of the parents to carefully protect the children’s requirements through to adulthood. These are the financial requirements, the education, the extra curricula, the clothing, everything that the children need to continue their life in a well-balanced and structured lifestyle.

We then work as a team to discuss and look at various financial modelling options as these clearly demonstrate achievable and non-achievable outcomes for each of them. So all the way through the process we’re looking forward, but we’re stepping back and checking to make sure that everything is signed as we step through. So things will be highlighted and we’ll adjust and fix those situations to make sure that we can move forward. All of the time there’s continual awareness and confidence in reaching the decisions that they ultimately come to.

(HOST) Julie, can you explain in more detail Interdisciplinary Collaborative Practice and what separating couples can expect when they select the ICP process?

(JULIE) Collaboration is a method which provides focused, professional support and guidance, and the collaborative process exists to empower each of the individuals towards autonomy, involvement and informed decision making. So when selecting the collaborative process, the separating couple will be supported by professionally trained collaborative team, which is often structured using four collaborative trained professionals. There are two lawyers, a lawyer representing each of their clients plus two neutrals, which we’ve spoken about. These neutrals remain fully independent during the entire process. The neutrals, as was said psychologist, mediator and a financial specialist, and all four of this team together provide holistic guidance and support towards the agreeable and respectful outcome.

The professional support and guidance for the two most important areas of a separation, which are the division and management of the personal finances and, of course, the future parenting arrangements for the children. Once this is done, the couple and the children can move forward with confidence because they’ve had the support of all professionals to finalise their current matter.

(HOST) Danielle, what are the outcomes you’re hoping to achieve when working with families?

(DANIELLE) We’re hoping for a lot. Immediately we want to reassure couples that they’re in good hands, that they’re getting support, that we’re there to help. We want to support them emotionally. We want to instil a respectful relationship between them, help them make those immediate decisions that almost just stabilises them and hopefully start, if there has been some conflict, hopefully start developing some goodwill. Long term, what we want to do is we want to work through a broad range of options with people, both with children, both financially, so they feel empowered to make decisions. So then when they leave our process, they can look back and they can think, they were informed, they had the space to think and make clear decisions. They had all the right support to make clear decisions, and they’ve made the best decisions for themselves going forward into the future for their family.

(HOST) Danielle is Interdisciplinary Collaborative Practice, suitable for everyone?

(DANIELLE) You know, I actually think that it is, and I think, you know, there might be some people that would argue against that. But where else do you have a process where you can call on other. I’ve worked with other psychologists? So somebody has some presenting mental health issues, I can work closely with their psychologist. I work with child specialists so we can include children in the picture. So I actually think that it is a thoughtful approach that actually, from my point of view, is appropriate to anybody. And because it is also flexible, so we’re looking at individual needs, and then we are crafting the process around that. It’s not a cookie cutter, it’s not a manualised process. It is about us understanding what each person’s needs are and then crafting the process around that.

(HOST) I’m hearing from both of you that the ICP process creates a tailored solution for separating families. Do you have examples of outcomes that you see as being unique to the ICP approach?

(DANIELLE) So I worked with some very skilled collaborative lawyers this week who approached me and said, would you be involved with this couple who was separating? They did have grown up children. It was a financial matter. The major asset was the title of the house, and that was in somebody else’s name. So really, it might not have been seen as being involved in the asset pool hadn’t have gone through the adversarial process. However, this was a long relationship and there needed to be some sort of financial settlement. Both parties felt that there needed to be some sort of financial settlement. So we worked hard and the lawyers worked efficiently, and they ended up crafting a very individualised financial agreement, coupled with some ongoing support, because there was some breakdown with family relationships. There would be no way that that would happen in a court process, and it happened very quickly. So that way, that couple were incredibly grateful. Relieved, felt like they had been fair and left the process with a whole lot of integrity, which was very rewarding for us as professionals.

(JULIE) I had a recent one, also involves a couple who separated over eight years ago, and at that time they had two young children. Mum remained in the family home with the children, and Mum continued to work, and her income covered day to day expenses for herself and the kids. While Dad covered the mortgage repayments house maintenance, plus educational costs and child support for the children. Here they are now eight years later, and the children are now teenagers and Dad is now about to be married. Therefore, his financial situation is changing, and he is keen to formalise the financial separation.

The situation is Mum can’t afford to refinance the house and pay dad out. Mum cannot afford to remain in the area where they live and the kids attend school. And that’s where the family and social connections are. Mum and Dad have remained on reasonable terms during the past and have always held the children’s needs, and happiness as a priority. So it’s starting to get a little bit tangled, so they had quite a dilemma on their hands. They knew that if they sold the house mum would be stuck, but Dad needed to relieve himself of the financial commitment, and he needed to move on with his life.

Now we worked through many and various options. Some which were dismissed immediately, and others took a little more time. And finally we ended up with two workable outcomes. Then we worked hard at those two outcomes and tested them very rigidly. And finally the couple arrived at the solution. The solution was that the house would remain in both names for a further four years. Now this was chosen because this is when the last child would have completed secondary education. In the meantime, Mum would pay her share of the mortgage and a subsidised rent to Dad. The agreed monthly mortgage and rent commitment was less than the equivalent of a rental in the area, so Mum was able to afford that. In turn, Dad would continue to pay the children’s education costs plus child support. Within four years, the house would be sold. Meanwhile, this provides Mum with an opportunity to remain in the house and commit to a good budget, allowing her to save for four years, plus, at the same time, retain her interest in the property market. Dad has reduced his current financial commitments and will received the agreed share from the ultimate sale of the property in four years.

The best thing was that the children were able to continue their current lives without the emotional disruption of moving house and possibly the school. Mum and Dad were very pleased with this, and they continued on as a happy, separated family. So it was a great outcome.

(HOST) If there was one message Danielle that you have for couples who are separating, what would it be?

(DANIELLE) You don’t have to go to court. It doesn’t have to be a fight. And there are skilled, empathetic professionals to help you build a new future.

(HOST) Julie, where can we get further information on ICP? And how can people contact yourself and Danielle?

(JULIE) We’re both members of the Australian Association of Collaborative Professionals https://www.collaborativeaustralia.com.au and we’re both registered there. Also, we have our own website, Lundberg & Gray https://www.lundbergandgray.com , and we’ve got quite a lot of information about our process and the way that we manage our particular discipline, to assist separating couples.

(HOST) Julie and Danielle, thank you for your time.

(JULIE, DANIELLE) Thanks very much Wallace.


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