Going through a divorce is a difficult, emotional time in most people’s lives. It also can be very expensive if you end up in protracted litigation, a trial, and an appeal. In the last seven years the courts have tried to streamline the process by implementing an Early Case Management Program. The program is designed to encourage court intervention within three to four weeks of the filing of a case.

After a case is filed an Initial Case Management Conference (ICMC) is scheduled with the judge or referee that will be assigned to your case (except in Dakota County where you do not receive an assigned judge). This hearing is normally scheduled within a month after the filing of the case with the court. The purpose of the ICMC hearing is to meet your judicial officer and have his or her immediate input into the process and your case. Normally at this hearing the parties are barred from bringing any motions, but are required to submit some general financial data and other background information, including information about children, the issues, assets and income.

At the hearing the parties discuss Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) options such as Mediation, Social Early Neutral Evaluation (SENE) and Financial Early Neutral Evaluation (FENE). Normally it is mandatory for the parties to agree on a Mediator or a professional to conduct a SENE or FENE as part of the Alternative Dispute Resolution Process, which is required,except under a few exceptions. Discovery(the exchange of information) and scheduling issues are also discussed to establish deadlines to move the case forward. Prior to the Early Case Management process, often a party would not see a judge until a Temporary Hearing, which could take longer to schedule. This also would be an adversarial hearing right from the start to litigate temporary custody, temporary child support, temporary spousal maintenance,homestead possession, or temporary debt division

Most judges now require immediate ADR before the scheduling of a temporary hearing unless there is an emergency or unusual circumstances. This is designed to encourage ADR and lessen litigation with the hope that people can reach settlements without the destructive personal attacks and the expense and time on the court system for a temporary hearing.

Issues involving custody, parenting time, or the children are addressed in a Social ENE (SENE). All financial matters such as spousal maintenance, child support, property division, debts and attorney fees are addressed in a Financial Early Neutral Evaluation (FENE). Each county has a roster to select an evaluator.  The evaluators are highly experienced in that respective area of the law or in custody and parenting time issues. Normally it is expected and required the ENE will occur promptly and that both parties and their attorneys will be mandated to attend.

At the ENE meetings both sides present relevant facts, information and data or financial information about income, assets, debts or about custody and parenting and may be questioned by the evaluator about necessary information so they can provide an evaluative opinion about what a particular court may likely to do with their case as far as the likely outcome. This process is totally confidential and no information or recommendations made by the evaluator can be used or presented to the court at a later time. If a complete settlement is reached the parties can waive the confidentiality of the meeting and present the complete final settlement. Neither side has to accept the recommendation, but are encouraged to consider it to be used as a starting point to mediate or reach a compromise on the issues. Each county has a sliding fee schedule governing the costs and fees for an ENE.

If the parties are still unsuccessful in reaching a settlement the court is notified the process has been completed and a settlement has not been reached. The rules bar the parties, counsel or the evaluator from discussing what occurred at the ENE. The matter then moves forward and proceeds to a Pretrial and if still unsettled a Trial.

It is important to have experienced counsel to guide you through this process and prepare you for the ENE as well as assist with the selection of a quality Evaluator. Often times there are also negotiations that take place if either party rejects the Evaluator’s opinion and a party would benefit greatly by having the input of an experienced divorce lawyer.

Jeff is trained and serves as Early Neutral Evaluator for both a SENE and a FENE and is also a mediator and  Rule 114 Neutral.  With 34 years of experience as an attorney he can successfully guide you through the process.