Collaborative Practice may be gentler option for families in transition

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 Randall L. Velzen at the offices of Velzen, Johnsen and Wikander PC

LEGAL NEWS PHOTO BY CYNTHIA PRICE

by Cynthia Price
Legal News

Divorce ends marriage in a contractual sense, but family relationships continue on.

Collaborative Practice is just one more step along the path started by family law mediation which aims towards a decision-making process for divorcing couples that will not

compromise the family’s ability to move forward.

Randy Velzen of Velzen, Johnsen and Wikander, PC, is the chair of the board of Collaborative Practice Institute of Michigan (CPIM). He says that he considers the defining characteristic of  Collaborative Practice to be the agreement the parties sign.

“Collaborative Practice is a commitment to settle cases without court involvement,” Velzen says. “Really, the heart of the collaboration is the participation agreement, which can include a lot of different things, but mainly says that if the couple is unable to settle their differences through the process, the attorneys have to withdraw from the case.”

There is another factor which puts the “collaborative” in the practice methodology, and that is its use of a team approach, where in addition to attorneys other professionals help resolve the dispute.

As a rule these professionals fall into two categories: financial advisors and what Velzen calls “mental health” counselors, including child specialists and divorce coaches.

So, for example, the Collaborative Divorce Professionals of West Michigan (http://gentlerdivorce.com) is a local association which includes trained CP attorneys Barbra Evans Homier, Courtney L. Quist, Deborah Bennett Berecz, Barbara A. Craft, Melanie DeStigter, Thomas J. Gezon, Elizabeth Bransdorfer, Meghan E. Lipford, Richard E. Roane, Margaret E. Allen, Susan Wilson Keener, and Judy Ostrander as well as Velzen’s partners Jennifer L. Johnsen and Erica L. Wikander. It   also consists of financial specialists  Rick Adamy, Dennis J. De Kok CFP, CDFA, and Robert W. Schellenberg, and child specialists/divorce coaches Michael Ryan, Ph.D., Merrill Graham, LMSW, RPT, Craig A. DeWitt Psy.D., Steven G. Hamming, Psy.D., Denise M. Hames, LMSW, Mary Lier, LMSW ACSW, and Peter Everts, Ph.D. 

Dr. Everts will join Velzen in a presentation for the Family Law Section of the Grand Rapids Bar on March 26. For more information, see “Coming Events” on page 2, where there is also a listing for an upcoming CPIM training day.

Having a mental health professional in the room, Velzen says, “can ensure that talking about conflicts is not a runaway train. They have the skills to handle emotions that have built up over the years and are now bubbling up in the divorce. Mental health people are a spectacular addition to the divorce process.”

While the interdisciplinary team carries an increased cost, Velzen emphasizes that the healing environment Collaborative Practice fosters is worth more, and still generally comes to less than adversarial proceedings. It also may preclude later expenses. “We see very few post-divorce change requests, for example, child support,” he observes.

“As far as the financial specialists,” he continues, “they’re doing all the work on the value of the assets, the house, the retirement plan, but at a lower hourly rate than attorneys would charge to obtain that information.”

Velzen acknowledges that collaborative divorces are not for everyone. His firm suggests mediation next, and, as a last resort, litigation.

His long career in family law and related areas (such as trusts and estates), is a testament to his ability to succeed no mater what the approach. He received his J.D. from Notre Dame Law School after graduating from Calvin College with honors.

Velzen has been a member of both small and medium-size law firms, including founding both Napieralski Walsh and Velzen and his present firm, and a solo practitioner.

He has received many accolades over his career including the Michael S. Barnes Pro Bono Award from Legal Aid of Western Michigan in 2005, the Volunteer of the Year from Easter Seals Michigan in 1987, and the Grand Rapids Bar Association President’s  Award in 2011.

He is married to Laurie Velzen, herself a paralegal in Warner Norcross and Judd’s Family Law Practice. Some may remember his moving speech on receipt of the President’s Award, avowing that he was accepting the award on behalf of his wife as well because she had contributed so much to his ability to volunteer his time.

The couple have two sons, Andrew and Benjamin, who are 23 and 21 respectively.

He admits he is still “overcommitted,” and still grateful to his wife for her support. He is currently Secretary of the GRBA; on the Family Law Council of the State Bar of Michigan and a committee chair for its Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) Section; on the board of Camp Roger, which is a ministry working through outdoor education of children; on the ADR Committee for the Kent County Courts; on the Michigan Supreme Court, Conciliation Workgroup on Friend of the Courts’ conciliation practice; and a member of the Standards Committee of the International Academy of Collaborative Professionals — “There’s no national organization, it goes right to international,” he says.

And then there is Prism Perspectives, LLC, a Collaborative Practice training group consisting of Velzen and other members of the Collaborative Divorce Professionals of West Michigan.

Since his own training through CPIM in 2006, Velzen has become a strong advocate for the non-adversarial process. “Over the past several decades, the number of divorce cases that settle out of court has always been over 90 percent. So it’s always been disconcerting to me to spend all the time, and the clients’ money, as if you’re preparing for trial, doing subpoenas and depositions and all that. It seems crazy. When I got involved with collaborative, it just made so much sense to me.”

In the small percentage of divorce cases that do end up in courts, Velzen points out that the final decision is made by the judge, the person in the room who, by design, knows the least about the facts in the case. Both mediation and Collaborative Practice address that disconnect by allowing the parties who know the most about the issues to have control over the ultimate decision.

“There’s no question in my mind that this is a better way for kids, even adult kids,” Velzen says. “In the last couple weeks a client actually teared up talking about his older son, an adult, who had thought the divorce was his fault. In the collaborative process we can talk about those things, and the process values the son and father having a good relationship. That’s something you hardly ever get in litigation.”

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