Divorce Options – Court Intervention

If you are facing a divorce, you have options for resolving the issues in your case. The next several postings will describe some of the options for getting divorced in the Twin Cities metro area of Minnesota.

The traditional approach to a divorce involves court intervention. The divorce process is initiated by service of a Summons and Petition for Dissolution of Marriage on the other party and filing the document with the Court. The Summons and Petition is a general document that sets forth the basic facts of a marriage. The responding party is required to serve and file an Answer to the Summons and Petition for Dissolution of Marriage within 30 days of receipt of the document. Both parties are required to pay a filing fee at the time of filing of approximately $400 (check your county website for specific filing fee requirements).

However, as a general rule, gone are the days when cases languished for years and judges made all of the decisions for parties to a divorce case. Today, in many metro area counties, courts have installed a system of Early Case Management. Under the system, an initial hearing is set within approximately 3 weeks of filing – typically called an “Initial Case Management Conference” or “ICMC.” The ICMC is informal – no testimony is taken and no decisions are made by the judge. Rather, the purpose of the ICMC is to determine the issues in a case and to provide parties with tools for resolving their disputes. Parties walk out of the hearing with a plan for exchanging information and documentation and alternative dispute resolution as well as a date for checking back in with the Court, often via a telephone conference.

One of the forms of alternative dispute resolution that is often offered to parties at an ICMC is “Early Neutral Evaluation” or “ENE.” ENE is a process by which both parties are given the opportunity to provide their perspective on a given issue and an experienced evaluator provides the parties with feedback about the likely outcome on the issue if they put it in the hands of a judge at trial. ENE can be conducted on social issues (custody and parenting time) and/or financial issues. ENE occurs early on in a case to avoid the damage done to ability to settle after substantial litigation. ENE is voluntary – meaning neither party can be compelled to participate. It is also confidential – meaning that, with a couple of exceptions, information exchanged during ENE is not disclosed to the court if parties are unable to reach an agreement through the process. There is a cost associated with ENE that varies from county to county. As a general rule, the cost of ENE pales in comparison to litigating a case to its conclusion. And, a very high percentage of cases resolve through the ENE process.

In those counties where ICMC and ENE are not yet available, parties are still required to engage in some form of alternative dispute resolution (unless they meet a domestic abuse exception).

In those cases where no resolution is reached through ENE or the like, efforts are often still made to resolve a case up to the time of trial. Counsel and the parties will likely participate in telephone conferences, settlement conferences as well as a Pretrial Hearing prior to trial. And, in the event of a trial, issues have generally been narrowed and items resolved that can be resolved prior to that time.

As you can see, while there are certainly cases where trial is necessary to resolve disputed issues, the family court system has evolved in many counties to permit resolution by the parties when possible.

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