Divorced From Reality

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

"If no one's hiding assets, simplified dissolution works just fine," Heckenbach continues. "And the judge lets you opt out if you want."

At least in theory. After receiving complaints about the simplified-dissolution process, Chief Justice Mullarkey issued an order that jurisdictions must allow couples to bow out of simplified dissolution if they wish to have their cases heard in a traditional courtroom instead. But that doesn't mean all judges are following that order. "I haven't heard of anyone being granted the ability to opt out," says Diane Carlton, president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers' Colorado chapter.

Since attorneys have also complained that simplified dissolution is handled in different ways in different counties, the commission wants to bring uniformity to the process, ensuring that all jurisdictions are following the same guidelines and offering the opt-out choice.

Michael Hogue
Cyndee Struyk didn't think her divorce was any simpler under the simplified-dissolution system.
Anthony Camera
Cyndee Struyk didn't think her divorce was any simpler under the simplified-dissolution system.

The Struyks weren't offered that choice. Had the option been presented, Cyndee thinks she would have opted out of simplified dissolution. "I don't think the traditional way would have cost me any more," she says, adding that she spent $15,000 on her divorce.

And despite early evidence of speedier conclusions, Carlton says simplified dissolution is now running into the same problems that have long plagued the traditional court system: too many cases and too few judges to handle them. "It still takes months to get before a judge," she says. "People are not getting that first meeting with the judge in 30 to 45 days."

Carlton likes the concept of simplified dissolution but says the courts need to be adequately staffed to make the program work. "I had one of the very first cases when simplified dissolution was piloted in Arapahoe County, and I think it worked very well then. The program did everything it was supposed to: The judge kept track of us, and there were disputes between counsel that got resolved quickly," she says. "If the program was operating the way it was intended to, it could be very helpful, but as it's developed, it's been a disaster."

Commission members are recommending that independent evaluations be conducted to determine exactly how simplified dissolution is working; they're also proposing that court staffing be increased to better serve families. But it will be up to the state legislature to provide extra money to jurisdictions.

Hunnicutt is confident that the commission's recommendations will solve most of the problems connected with simplified dissolution. One proposal would allow formal discovery as long as the judge permits it; another would allow parties to request more than one expert per disputed issue.

Taken together, the commission's recommendations have the potential to transform the court experience for parents and children, Hunnicutt says. "There have been many efforts over the last twenty years -- different commissions and committees -- to improve the lot of families in court, and everything has always been put on a shelf," he explains. "But this commission has some people who really want to get something done this time."

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