When navigating the minefield of divorce, everything you've worked for and everything you care about is up for grabs: your income, your home, custody of your children (if you have them), your sense of security and even your very identity. More hotly contested and drawn out divorce proceedings result in higher costs and greater emotional wreckage.
For a while, mediation was considered the great new panacea, a supposedly more civilized route to a less adversarial – and less expensive – separation agreement upon which to base post-divorce life. But more couples are discovering that alternatives to the lawyer route may not be all they were chalked up to be.
With all that's at stake, individuals about to separate or divorce want an affordable advocate who will look out for their short- and long-term interests.
Enter the divorce doula – or coach, or consultant – a new breed of divorce support worker in the business of helping individuals navigate the messy job of ending a marriage. Some focus on offering emotional support that isn't steeped in the sometimes fraught politics of friendship. Others specialize in financial prep work – helping clients complete endless forms, gauging the future value of real estate, RRSPs, mutual funds and pension plans. All promise a solid understanding of the legal system and they are new and have little of the baggage that lawyers and mediators might carry.
The doula's allure comes from a promise to give clients a sense of control at a particularly raw time, when people feel their lives are coming apart at the seams. But is this really a kinder, gentler, more equitable path to divorce before the lawyers complete the agreement? Or is it just another name for a process that torments the vulnerable and leads to the same, unhappy conclusion?
Sabrina Martin needed advice from someone who wasn't a friend, a lawyer or the Internet. She turned to a local divorce coach who helped her devise a strategy before she even announced the end of the marriage. Martin's coach encouraged her to look past the divorce, at the kind of future she wanted for herself and her daughter, and at the financial support to which she was entitled to. When she learned about an affair her husband was having during the separation process, her coach helped her find some perspective. Because of that preparation, Martin's meetings with her lawyer were highly efficient – a final separation agreement was reached in under two months, keeping the total cost of divorce very low. "She offered a breadth and depth of perspective that was calm and grounding," Martin says.
Helping people find solid footing is at the heart of Lynn Kaplan's work. A Toronto-based divorce doula, she draws on a background that includes training in family mediation, family law and parenting co-ordination. "Emotions are a huge component of divorce. If you don't support that, it interferes with how the logistical side unfolds," Kaplan says.
As emotionally distressing as divorce can be, it is the logistics that most people are really worried about. And while divorcing couples wish the end would arrive as quickly as possible, Kaplan says proceeding slowly and thoughtfully can result in better preparations that keep disputes from escalating.
Ultimately, however, "divorce always becomes about custody and money," says Debbie Shawn, a former social worker and personal organizer who founded Toronto-based Divorce Matters.
According to canadianlegal.org, the cost of a contested divorce can easily be more than $40,000. Experienced family lawyers bill a minimum of $350 an hour (and often much more), plus the cost of disbursements, discoveries, appraisals, mediation, financial audits and any other costs that may arise. The more work done in advance – at a time when couples are suddenly paying for separate accommodations on the same income – the better.
"In order to resolve any of that, there is so much paperwork," Shawn says.
Shawn helps her clients organize their financial statements and sets up one-page summaries for general finances, investments, and debts and liabilities so important information is at their fingertips. Along with speeding up the legal process, it helps her clients visualize what's at stake financially.
Dividing up marital assets isn't as simple as drawing a line down the middle: Agreements that appear fair today may not result in equal shares another 10 or 20 years from now.
"Many men say they've had to give all their money to their wife, but what's your earning power? Can you continue to earn a living and generate money? Perhaps she will never be able to earn what you're earning next week because she missed out on opportunities for 10 years," Shawn explains.
Coaches try to keep clients focused on the long-term picture. But when the stakes are especially high (think complicated investments and multiple properties), Shawn refers clients to a certified divorce financial analyst who will help determine the value of shared property and other assets, their projected future value and provide advice on how to equitably divide it all and plan for your future.
"In many ways, divorce requires a team and some teams need different people than others," she says.
Though it's an added cost (divorce doulas and coaches charge about $100 an hour), it can pay dividends when everything gets turned over to lawyers.
Doulas are gaining support, even from lawyers. John P. Schuman, managing partner of Toronto family law firm Devry Smith Frank, says clients working with a divorce coach are better prepared. "They come to meetings coping better and with a different attitude," Schuman says. "They have more focused discussions, and it makes our life a lot easier to have someone able to focus on the legal issues and making good decisions as opposed to being ruled by emotions."
And, he said, overburdened family court judges appreciate the rational approach of clients who work with coaches. "When people act out of anger, it takes time," he says. And time is money, which divorcing couples can ill afford.