For those of you who have been following the blog, I am writing about the various steps in the divorce process in Minnesota.  So far, I have talked about service of the Summons and Petition (by the Petitioner) and service of the Answer (by the Respondent).

Typically, each party files his or her pleading with the court and pays the court filing fee.  The court filing fee is $400 for each party ($800) total.  In some counties it is slightly higher.

A bit about terminology.  In Minnesota divorce cases, the party who starts the proceeding is called the “Petitioner.”  The other party is called the “Respondent.” A “pleading” is any document that you file with the court that is related to the divorce proceeding.  A divorce Petition, a divorce Answer, a Motion, a supporting Affidavit, are all “pleadings.”

After the process is commenced by service of the Summons and Petition, the next step will vary, depending upon the Minnesota county the proceeding takes place in.  Different counties follow different rules.  The reason for this in part has to do with the size of the county and the way that particular county system operates.  In many large counties (Hennepin, Ramsey, and Anoka) for example, a case is blocked to a specific judicial officer.  In other counties (Dakota, Scott, Carver) for example, a case is not blocked to a particular judge, and the parties could have a different judge each time the appeared in court for a particular matter.

In Hennepin County, the family court schedules an Initial Case Management conference as soon as the case is filed.  The rules require that the ICMC be held within 21 days.

At the ICMC, the court will ask whether the parties want to take part in two voluntary settlement programs.  If child custody and parenting time is in dispute, the court will offer a Custody Early Neutral Evaluation program.  The parties meet with two evaluators who will discuss the case with them and try to bring about a settlement.  If they cannot, they will provide their own evaluation of the likely outcome of the case.  CENEs are not free.  You have to pay for this.

At the ICMC, the court will also ask whether the parties want to participate in a Financial Early Neutral Evaluation program.  Its similar to the CENE, except it pertains to financial issues only, and there is only one evaluator.  FENEs are not free.  You have to pay for this, too.

I have some philosophical problems with the ENE programs.  They can be a good thing, and generally I support the concept.  But, more often than not, the evaluators are not lawyers, they are social workers. I have a problem when  a non-lawyer gives his or her evaluation of the likely outcome of a custody trial.  In my view, this is practicing law without a license.  (Generally speaking, practicing law involves applying a legal analysis to a particular fact situation.  In Minnesota, you are not supposed to do this unless the Minnesota Supreme Court gives you a license to do so.)

A social worker has never argued a case in court, has no idea about the leanings of a particular judicial officer, and generally should not be offering an opinion about what might happen if a case is litigated.

I also think that some neutrals can be too quick to give their own evaluation, and then terminate the meeting, when the case is not settled.  The evaluators who are social workers do not typically understand how negotiation works, they often do not appreciate the give and take, they often think their opinion is the only possible “correct” opinion, and they can get in the way of settlement.

This is not true for all Early Neutral Evaluators.  Many are very good, and do very good jobs.  But, you need an attorney who knows the difference, and knows when the evaluation has validity and when it does not.

In my next blog post, I will write about how the process works in counties that do not have an ENE system.