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Divorce Needn't be Wholly Acrimony 

By Booth Moore, Times Staff Writer - March 24, 1999

Jay Levy was shocked when his wife, Alison Gerred, asked for a divorce after only two years of marriage. Yet he knew one thing: Even though the marriage was over, he wanted a role in the lives of his two daughters. Things got tough when Gerred began planning to move with the kids to Phoenix. Facing a custody battle, Levy, an electronic and security systems salesman from Northridge, began to interview attorneys.

"They wanted to destroy the mother of my children," he remembers. "I knew if we got attorneys involved, we would end up hating each other's guts."

Instead, the couple went to a financial mediator and a child psychologist, eventually reaching a divorce agreement so amicable that they still take weekly trips to the park as a family. Last summer, the foursome even vacationed together in Las Vegas. "He had his room, and I had mine," Gerred explains. "It was kinda weird on one hand, but it was good for the kids."

Gerred, who did not move to Phoenix after all, and Levy are one of an increasing number of divorced couples who are settling their differences outside of court and without litigation. Last month, a group of professionals formed the Coalition for Cooperative Divorce in Los Angeles to help.

"There are a growing number of family law attorneys who are disillusioned with trying to solve family conflict through the judicial process. It's too adversarial, costly and destructive," explains Ronald Supancic, a family lawyer and the author of several books about mediation.

Supancic leads the coalition, which will share resources regarding no-court divorce with other professionals, refer couples who want information and act as an advocate for the non adversarial approach.

"We want to change the face of divorce in America," Supancic says. He modeled the organization after the Collaborative Law Institute in Minneapolis, with one difference. The Southern California version is interdisciplinary, with financial advisors, mediators, parenting instructors, single-parent organizations and psychotherapists represented. In no-court divorce, couples go through emotional assessment, parenting classes, separation therapy, rage management, insurance planning and more--all before a petition is even filed.

The process also costs less than the traditional method. According to Supancic, "A divorce with significant assets costs $60,000 to $100,000. With no-court divorce, that figure plummets to an average of $5,000 or $10,000."

But the savings is in more than just dollars, says Forrest "Woody" Mosten, a Los Angeles attorney who specializes in mediation.

"Using mediation instead of litigation can prevent a major change of life," he says. "A key emotion in divorce is deprivation. It can affect taking kids out of private school or moving to a different neighborhood."

An advocate of no-court divorce, Mosten recently opened two mediation centers in Sherman Oaks and West Los Angeles that can provide no-court divorces. The centers staff mediators with business backgrounds, family therapists--even a rabbi.
Many consider non adversarial divorce to be more healthy.

"It felt good when it was all over," says L. Cohen of Westlake, who did not want her first name used. Her divorce was settled through a mediator two years ago.

"When you go to a mediator, you are going together," Cohen says. "You have to listen to the other side no matter how much you have convinced yourself you will never listen to it again. There is no hate."

The mediation and therapy that couples go through with no-court divorce is different from marriage counseling, Supancic says. "Counseling is behavior modification for the long term," he says. "Divorce therapy is goal-oriented and specific. I help couples learn to communicate as separate entities. It's a journey from being a couple to being two single people who can look at each other with respect, and parent together." According to Bruce Derman, a clinical psychologist who practices in Santa Monica and Woodland Hills, "The child abuse that goes on in divorce situations is one of the biggest unrecognized child abuses. I've seen cases where the mother makes a child get on the phone to the father and say, 'Because you're not sending more money, I can't see you anymore.' One-parent families are the norm, but we will erode the foundation of society if we keep ending relationships in a destructive way."