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Divorced From Reality

A Colorado Supreme Court commission says this state's justice system could do more to help families -- starting with the parents.

Cyndee Struyk expected her divorce to be final in three months. Instead, it took almost ten. The divorce was also supposed to be a mannerly proceeding in which she and her husband of seventeen years would meet before a magistrate in an informal setting, where they would freely exchange information about their assets and politely discuss any child-custody arrangements.

As it turned out, the divorce was far from civil -- or even simple.

"In the beginning we tried to talk to each other and work things out, but it was very adversarial," Cyndee says. "We had at least three status conferences with the magistrate, and every time we'd get close to agreeing, something would happen and things would stall."

The Struyks had been assigned to "simplified dissolution," a new process intended to take some of the animosity out of divorce by keeping the proceedings out of the courtroom. When Cyndee filed for divorce on June 6, 2001, Arapahoe County was in the midst of a pilot project in which half of the divorce cases were randomly selected for simplified dissolution and the other half handled in the traditional courtroom setting. (Arapahoe County averages about 3,000 domestic-relations cases a year, which include divorces, legal separations, and cases in which parental reponsibility is allocated.)

The idea for the pilot project, which was taking place in Denver and El Paso counties at the same time, had come from a Colorado Supreme Court committee formed in 1998. The committee members, who wanted to improve the divorce process, had studied a program in Minnesota called Divorce With Dignity, and decided in January 2000 to try a variation of the program here.

"Simplified dissolution has some magic to it, in that the parties are started out in a system where positive things are emphasized and they can see a judge right away," says Denise Mills, a family-law attorney in Colorado. "If you can surround a divorce case with a positive atmosphere where the judge says, 'We'll try to do this in as dignified and humane a way as possible,' it can really set the tone."

In simplified-dissolution cases, couples are supposed to meet with a judge or court magistrate -- usually in the judicial officer's chambers -- 30 to 45 days after they file for divorce. At that first meeting, the judicial officer explains the rules: Husband and wife can each have an attorney, but neither can file motions without permission from the judge or magistrate; in subsequent meetings, the spouses are supposed to disclose all financial information (formal requests for documents are prohibited unless the judge orders otherwise); when couples disagree on something, such as the value of their house or a retirement account, they are allowed to choose only one expert, such as a real estate appraiser or accountant, to intervene.

The theory is that by avoiding traditional hearings, with their formal discovery and expert-witness testimony, divorce cases end faster and therefore cost less. (A state law intended to protect couples from making rash decisions mandates that no divorce in Colorado can be finalized until at least ninety days after filing.)

"Attorneys refer to this as the 'rocket docket,' but it's not; it's just earlier intervention," says Pam Gagel, a former Denver District Court magistrate who has been helping judges across the state implement simplified dissolution. "Judges meet with the parties earlier in the process and tell them what they need to get done so that if they want the divorce to be finalized on that 91st day, they can."

Before Cyndee Struyk filed for divorce, she had never heard of simplified dissolution. Her attorney told her that with this fast-track process, the proceedings would likely be complete by the end of the three-month waiting period. But the case dragged on and on, Cyndee says, because her husband "would never settle on anything. He'd always come up with one more thing.

"He wanted the kids half-time, and if I didn't agree, he said he'd fight," she continues. "My attorney said that if he did that, I should prepare myself for another year. I finally gave in, because I knew he wasn't going to give up. I couldn't afford to fight for another year when my attorney charges $250 an hour."

Tom Struyk declined to comment for this story. His attorney, Gina Weitzenkorn, acknowledges that the couple disagreed about parenting time, but she says that wasn't what stretched out the proceedings. "One of the reasons the case took so long was because of some of the complicated forms that had to be prepared to figure out the assets," Weitzenkorn explains. "Even if this case had taken ten months -- and I don't think it did -- it would have taken twenty before simplified dissolution." According to Weitzenkorn, the case was essentially settled that December, although the divorce wasn't final until March 2002.

An early comparison of the pilot and control cases in all three counties certainly indicated that simplified-dissolution divorces were concluding faster than traditional cases. "It seems that much of this can be attributed to early identification of cases that do not require court attention beyond simply ensuring that paperwork and timelines are met, thus preventing cases from becoming 'lost' and freeing judge time for... those cases that do require oversight and assistance," states a February 2001 report on the project.

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