To the non-lawyer reader, this is an important issue for you. So please bear through the legal details set out here, because the end of this one is where it really matters to you.
As if 2020 didn’t throw the world enough curve balls, beginning January 1, 2021, couples filing for divorce and their attorneys are dealing with a new set of rules for document and information exchange. Before that date, clients and their attorneys had the individual freedom to decide how and when to request documents and other information relevant to their divorce lawsuit.
Depending on the complexity of their estate or whether the couple had children, that information exchange could range from informal requests by letter or even e-mail, all the way to the formal process known as Written Discovery. This Written Discovery could include (1) Interrogatories (questions, often very personal, to be answered and notarized); (2) Requests for Production of Documents (typically a longlist of documents whether in existence or not to ensure that lawyers “covered their bases” by asking for any possible document that existed for any possible asset or liability of the couple); (3) Requests for Admissions(admit or deny a list of statements, some about documents and others about very personal matters); and (4) Requests for Disclosure (a predetermined list of issues set out in the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure).
Prior to 2021, each client and his or her respective attorney could decide based on the situation whether they wanted to use any or all of these methods of Written Discovery, but as of 2021,that is no longer true. Now, within 30 days after the responding spouse files an answer, both must provide to the other – among other things – the name, address, and telephone number of anyone “having knowledge of relevant facts” about the divorce. This could be friends, family members, teachers, financial planners; the list could go on and on. And while you may not want to formally identify all of those people, the law says you must.
In addition, divorcing spouses must also provide a copy or description with location of “all documents, electronically stored information, and tangible things” that each has in his or her possession and that may be at issue in the case. And there’s more. Within 30 days of the formal answer on file with the Court, each spouse and attorney must send to the other copies of specific documents, including real estate documents, bank statements, all documents related to retirement plans, health insurance plan documents, and numerous others.
Sound onerous? It is, especially given the time constraints set out in the new law. And it’s expensive. Gathering and cataloguing this information to exchange with the other attorney costs clients a lot of money. Spouses and their attorneys can agree to create their own information exchange rules and deadlines. But beware. It requires agreement to the exact same terms by both sides, and spouses and their attorneys may not be able to reach those agreements.
But there is a bright spot. Collaborative Divorce is a way for couples to take control of their divorce process and avoid the expense of these new Written Discovery laws. In a Collaborative Divorce, couples and their divorce attorneys sign a Collaborative Law Participation Agreement that removes them from the litigation process. There are no hearings, no trials, no formal Written Discovery rules they are required to follow. The couple and their Collaborative attorneys get to decide what information they are going to exchange, how and when they gather this information, and on the timeline that works best for their family.
There are many other benefits to a Collaborative Divorce. Avoiding the expense of gathering a lot of documents both spouses already have access to in a timeframe that causes them to incur unnecessary legal fees is just one of them. Divorce is costly enough. Why make it more expensive than it needs to be?
Rhonda Cleaves is a Credentialed Collaborative Divorce Attorney in Plano, Texas. She represents clients throughout the state, including Collin, Dallas, Denton, and Tarrant counties. For more information, she can be reached at (972) 403-0333.