By: Amy Yanik Meisel
Let’s face it. Getting a divorce is not fun. It’s a confusing time both emotionally and financially. But hiring the right attorney can help you understand the dissolution process and get you through this process with ease and grace. Here is a basic rundown of what a typical dissolution process looks like from start to finish in the Twin Cities metro area:
Hire an Attorney. Your first step is to hire an attorney who is competent and you feel comfortable with. Once you retain your attorney, you will typically be required to provide him or her with a completed “Domestic Questionnaire,” which is a form that provides your attorney with basic information regarding your family and your finances. Your attorney also will likely ask you to provide him or her with documentation supporting the values of the assets in your estate. If you do not have this information or documentation, that is okay. Your attorney can obtain the documentation from the opposing party or opposing counsel.
Service of Summons & Petition for Dissolution of Marriage. Next, your attorney will use the information gathered from your initial meeting and the Domestic Questionnaire to draft a Summons and Petition for Dissolution of Marriage. A Summons notifies the other party that a lawsuit has been started and that neither party can dispose of any assets except for the necessities of life or for the necessary generation of income or preservation of assets, unless otherwise agreed to by the parties. The Petition contains factual information regarding the parties, their children, and their marital estate. It also contains the “relief” that is being requested (i.e. request for custody of the children, child support, spousal maintenance, etc.) You and your attorney will decide whether to serve the opposing party personally through a process server, or if you would rather serve the Summons and Petition upon your spouse yourself, you can do so but the opposing party must then sign an Admission of Service.
You and your attorney will decide whether or not to file the Summons and Petition with the district court or if you would rather wait to involve the court. There are several reasons to file with the Court and several reasons not to file with the Court that should be discussed with your attorney.
Initial Case Management Conference. In the metro area, if you decide to file your Summons and Petition with the Court, you will be assigned to a Referee or a Judge. Within the first several weeks after filing the Summons and Petition of Dissolution of Marriage, you will receive a notice from the Court that you, your spouse and counsel are required to attend an “Initial Case Management Conference (ICMC.)” An Initial Case Management Conference is a hearing wherein the Court introduces itself to the parties, determines if any agreements have been made by the parties that can be incorporated into an Order, provides Alternative Dispute Resolution choices, establish discovery limitations and deadlines; discusses settlement progress and opportunities for settlement; and assigns a date for the future conferences, if needed.
Discovery. The next step in a typical dissolution is for the parties to exchange “discovery” through their attorneys. Discovery can be a formal process wherein your attorney will serve the other party or counsel with Interrogatories or Request for Production of Documents. The opposing party is required to formally respond with a sworn responsive statement. However, parties can agree to an “informal” discovery process wherein the parties agree to exchange written requests for information and documentation via letter correspondence. It is often during the discovery phase of the dissolution that parties will obtain property appraisals, business valuations, and custody and parenting time evaluations, if applicable.
Alternative Dispute Resolution. Once documentation has been exchanged between the parties, the next is to schedule some form of Alternative Dispute Resolution process, such as mediation, a Financial Early Neutral Evaluation (FENE), or a Social Early Neutral Evaluation (SENE):
- Mediation: Mediation is a process wherein the parties and their counsel meet with a neutral third party in an effort to resolve all issues in their dissolution and reach a final agreement. Mediation sessions are typically scheduled in 3 hour increments but can be scheduled for longer periods of time. Your attorney will have suggestions regarding whom to use as a mediator. Most parties can reach an agreement on all issues in their dissolution through the mediation process, albeit not always in one session.Of course, parties may not reach an agreement on all issues but instead may only reach an agreement on a few issues, which is just fine. The less issues you litigate, the less you will spend on your dissolution. If parties cannot reach a settlement on all issues during mediation, they can still attempt to resolve things through their counsel, post-mediation. However, if settlement cannot be reached, the matter will be set for a pretrial with the Court.
- SENE: Another form of alternative dispute resolution is the “SENE,” which stands for “Social Early Neutral Evaluation.” An SENE is a short-term, confidential evaluative process designed to facilitate prompt resolution in custody and parenting time matters. If parties agree to participate in an SENE, they and their counsel will meet with two experts in custody and parenting time matters. Each party presents their opinion of the important issues surrounding their children. After listening to both parties, the ENE team will offer their evaluative opinions on what custody and parenting time arrangements would work best for their family. Feedback is provided to parties and their attorneys based on case presentations and a limited amount of information gathering. The SENE process takes place early on in the case (even before the discovery process noted above) with the goal of resolving custody and parenting time issues quickly and avoiding a custody and parenting time evaluation.
- FENE: Yet another form of alternative dispute resolution is the “FENE,” which stands for “Financial Early Neutral Evaluation.” At the Initial Case Management Conference (ICMC), the Court may recommend that the parties and their attorneys participate in the financial ENE process if they have one or more outstanding financial issues. Parties who agree to participate in a Financial Early Neutral Evaluation meet with a financial expert to attempt to resolve the issues of child support, spousal maintenance, valuation of the marital estate, and division of the marital estate early on in their case. Often, settlement can occur before significant time and money has been spent.
The early neutral evaluation process must be completed within sixty (60) days. Within that 60 day period, you will either reach a settlement or inform the Court that no agreement has been reached. If an agreement is reached, the attorneys will cooperate with the evaluator and the Court to draft the necessary documents to make sure that the agreement is enforced.
- Moderated Settlement Conference (MSC). A Moderated Settlement Conference is a confidential, voluntary evaluative process designed to facilitate dispute resolution in the later stages of family court matters. The program offers the evaluative impressions of experienced attorney-moderators (called MSC neutrals) to parties engaged in custody, parenting time, and financial disputes. The MSC is held at Court is typically completed after or at the first pretrial in the case. Based on all of the information in the Court file, the MSC Neutral provides an opinion and feedback to the parties and their attorneys and assists in the settlement process. Any agreements reached during this settlement conference will be placed on the record that day.
If parties reach an agreement through any alternative dispute resolution process, their respective counsel will draft a Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law, Order for Judgment and Judgment and Decree, which will incorporate the terms of settlement. Once the “Decree” has been signed by all parties and their counsel, it will be submitted to the Court for review and approval. Once the Court files the Decree, you will be officially divorced.
Pretrial. If the parties cannot reach a resolution on all issues, the Court will schedule a Pretrial, which is a hearing with the Court wherein the parties and their counsel inform the Court of what outstanding issues remain, names of potential witnesses and how many days they believe are needed for trial. The Court requires that the parties further discuss settlement at the Pretrial. If no settlement can be reached, the Court will set the matter on for a Trial (sometimes called an Evidentiary Hearing).
Trial/Evidentiary Hearing. At trial, the Court will hear evidence from both parties and their witnesses regarding all unsettled issues. The length of a trial will depend on the issues that are being tried. In family law, a trial is before a Judge or Referee and not a Jury. At the completion of trial, often counsel will submit proposed Orders. The Court has 90 days from the last submission from which to enter its decision. After the Court issues its formal Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law, Order for Judgment and Judgment and Decree, you will be officially divorced. Unfortunately, after trial, there is still the possibility that post-dissolution issues will arise which may or may not require Court intervention. There is also the possibility that one party will appeal to the Court of Appeals.
A typical dissolution will take approximately one (1) year from start to finish, although some take less and some take more.