Boise attorney Michelle Michaud was just 3 years old when her parents’ marriage fell apart. This was in the 1980s, an era when the mechanics of separating a household and its children were still in their primitive stages.
Michelle’s parents’ divorce dragged on for six years. The process was so adversarial that at the age of 9, she had to take the stand in a California courtroom to tell a judge which parent she would choose to live with.
Determined to help other kids avoid a similar experience, Michaud became a lawyer and started My Family Architects, a business that offers a six-meeting process for mediating and resolving the questions that come up when one household is divided into two.
Michaud’s business walks the soon-to-be-divorced through every aspect of the proceedings. The process starts with divorce planning and moves along to sustainable co-parenting, creating a parenting agreement, financial mapping, financial agreements, and then divorce settlements. Families pay a fixed rate of $5,800 and receive in return document review and multiple meetings with three professional mediators. One is a counselor who helps with budgeting; one is a parenting coach, and one is the attorney mediator, Michaud, who follows the couple through the process.
That fixed rate is part of Michaud’s mission to take the uncertainty out of the process and turn every divorce into an amicable divorce.
Idaho already does a relatively good job when it comes to divorce. The Fourth Judicial District, which includes Ada County, requires parents who are getting divorced to take a “focus on children class” that teaches them some steps they can take to minimize the trauma to the children. Only about half of the U.S. states require such a class.
Of the 200 divorces filed in Ada County every month, about 180 are sent to mandatory mediation, Michaud said. Eventually, 98 percent are settled – even if they’re settled on the courtroom steps – rather than battled in court. Michaud can see any of them, but she prefers to start working with families before they enter the court system.
Michaud thinks a court-based process inevitably pits the parents against each other, and that’s what she’s trying to correct. She brings a survivor’s wisdom to her work. She’s close to both of her parents (one in California, one in Arizona) though the two of them don’t talk to each other, she said. She’s close to her brother, who lives in California. She reassures parents that divorce doesn’t have to leave lifelong scars.
“We know that children are resilient,” she counsels prospective clients, many of whom are children of divorce themselves. “Given respect, honesty and the time, space and choice to recover, they will be just fine.”
But she doesn’t sugar-coat what divorce did to her. Her father fought hard for joint custody, a new concept in the 1980s. Her parents went through many painful attempts at creating and modifying a parenting plan. And now, at 35, she herself is divorced. She doesn’t have children.
Michaud is far from the only one who has seen there are ways to make divorce less adversarial. She sees herself as part of an evolution away from the courts and toward a mediated process that takes into account the emotional aspects of the separation. She said her business is a hybrid made of many other successful mediation-based models, reframed into a fixed-fee, step-by-step process.
“We want to provide a forum for people to come and start a new conversation,” she said. “We want them to recognize that although there are legal implications to divorce, it is not a legal problem.”