You've taken that first big step: filed for divorce. Or perhaps your spouse has filed, and you've answered the divorce petition. You're officially in the process of getting a divorce in Minnesota, and you're no doubt wondering what that process is going to be like. Often, the anxiety about what comes next is worse than the process itself. Knowing what to expect can offer a little peace of mind and help you ask your attorney informed questions that will empower you to make the best choices for you and your children.

Notice of Court Assignment and Removal of Judge

The first notice the court issues after a divorce has been filed is a Notice of Judicial Assignment; this document tells you which judge or referee will be overseeing your case. Minnesota offers parties to a divorce the right to remove the assigned judicial officer from their case. However, this must be done within ten days of the date of the Notice of Judicial Assignment. Each party has the right to exercise this option, which means that theoretically, the judicial officer could be changed twice.

Why might you want to remove your judicial officer? Well, although judicial officers are supposed to be objective, they have opinions and biases like everyone else, and experienced divorce lawyers are usually aware of these. If your divorce attorney advises you that the judicial officer you've been assigned is unlikely to rule in your favor on issues that are important to you, it may be worth requesting removal. Think twice before removing your judicial officer just because a friend had that judicial officer and didn't like him or her; your situation may be very different from your friend's. It's best to decide this matter based on advice from an attorney who has more extensive experience with many judicial officers.

Many people are surprised to learn that the great majority of Minnesota divorces don't end with the court ruling at trial. Most people reach a settlement at some point in the divorce process. Minnesota courts encourage this, as settlement is usually less expensive and less contentious for the parties, and keeps the docket clear for cases that really need court intervention.

Initial Case Management Conference and Early Neutral Evaluation

The Notice of Judicial Assignment will also inform you of the date of Initial Case Management Conference (ICMC). In the ICMC, the court gets the lay of the land with regard to your divorce, including any agreements you and your spouse have already made. At least three days prior to the ICMC, you will submit a Conference Data Sheet to the court. This gives the court information about the issues in your case. You will also need to submit this document to your spouse or your spouse's attorney if he or she has one.

It's great if you and your spouse have agreed on all issues by the ICMC, but usually that's not the case. Because the courts encourage settlement, as noted above, the court may ask you to participate in Early Neutral Evaluation (ENE) for unresolved social issues (such as custody and parenting time) or financial issues (such as division of property). The ENE process is voluntary, and both parties must agree to it. There are some reasons you may not want to agree to the ENE process, such as if you are afraid of your spouse for any reason and feel you aren't on equal ground for negotiating. You should discuss any reservations you have with your attorney.

Depending on the county, the court will either provide a list of evaluators and you and your spouse, together with your attorneys, will choose one, or you will be assigned evaluators who work for court services. There are separate ENEs for social and financial issues; in an effort to avoid bias, social ENEs usually involve a male and female evaluator. Evaluations usually take place fairly quickly after the ICMC, typically within three weeks. Evaluations may take about three hours, but can be longer or shorter depending on the county.

At the ENE, both you and your spouse will have time to talk to the evaluators without interruption from the other party. The evaluators will ask each of you questions to get a better understanding of your situation. They will then meet privately for a brief conference, and come back and give you their estimation of what they believe the outcome of your case will be. Then you will have the opportunity, with your attorneys and the evaluators, to try to reach agreement on some or all issues. The evaluators will report any agreements you reach to the court, but not the content of your discussions prior to the agreement. The court will decide any issues left unresolved after the ENE. If all issues are resolved, you may not have to go to court again.

If unresolved issues remain, the parties will need to provide each other and the court with additional information in a continued effort to reach settlement or to prepare for a trial. If your divorce is headed down this path, an experienced family law attorney makes it much easier. Please contact us at Mundahl Law with any questions you have about the Minnesota divorce process. We look forward to working with you.