Torn photograph of wedding cake topper. Visual concept for legal blog discussing one of the most challenging aspects of the divorce process: not knowing what to expect. This blog explains four of the phases of a divorce.

One of the most challenging aspects of divorce for most people is not knowing what to expect. Lack of familiarity with the divorce process can make it feel like life is out of control, at a time when you are already dealing with major upheaval.

At Mundahl Law, we believe that keeping you informed is key to keeping you empowered—giving you back control of your life and helping you make good decisions for your future. No two divorces are ever alike, simply because no two families are exactly alike. With that in mind, there are some basic things you can expect from the divorce process.

One of them is the reality that your divorce is overwhelmingly likely to settle; roughly 95% of divorces do. That means that even if your divorce doesn’t feel amicable right now, you still probably won’t have to have a divorce trial. Let’s talk about the phases of the divorce process.

Summons and Petition (Starting the Divorce Process)

Divorce in Minnesota is designed to be cooperative whenever possible. In Minnesota, divorce begins when a Petition for Dissolution of Marriage is prepared and served on the other party (or mailed to the other party, who signs a document called an Admission of Service acknowledging that they received it). Often, the spouses can then reach agreements on the terms of their divorce, and sign a settlement agreement before the divorce is even filed. Then, all the papers are filed together, and the court can simply approve the agreement and grant the divorce. Of course, cooperation isn’t possible in all situations. In that case, you might need to file your divorce with the district court in order to jumpstart the process.

The service of divorce papers starts the clock ticking for your spouse to file a response to the allegations in your Petition with the court. They have 30 days to do so after they receive the Summons and Complaint. If your spouse fails to respond to the Petition within the time given, after an additional 21 days, you may be able to ask the court to enter a default against your spouse, which will allow you to proceed with the divorce without their participation.

Your spouse may ask for an extension of time to file an answer through their attorney, and it is routine to grant that kind of request. The option of a default exists to keep the divorce process moving, not to serve as a “gotcha” against one party. Remember, it’s in everyone’s best interests to keep the process as cooperative as possible.


An initial case management conference (ICMC) takes place about three to four weeks after the divorce is filed; you and your spouse will meet very briefly with a judicial officer who will get a sense of disputed issues in the case. If you and your spouses have attorneys, they will do most of the talking at this meeting.

The next stage of the divorce process is discovery, in which you and your spouse have the opportunity to gather information from each other to support your respective positions and make informed settlement decisions. For instance, you might ask your spouse to provide information about assets, income, debt, their proposed parenting plan, and other relevant information.

Discovery typically begins with each party asking informal questions to be answered and for each party to produce their documentation to support their statements about their financial status. If that fails, then sometimes, in really contentious cases, the parties may engage in formal discovery. This type of discovery includes written questions, called interrogatories, which must be answered in writing and under oath. Requests for production of documents, subpoenas, and requests for admission of facts are other common discovery tools. Another discovery tool is depositions, in which one spouse’s attorney questions the other spouse, who is again, under oath. Just understand that the majority of cases are best handled through informal discovery with each side truthfully acknowledging their assets and liabilities. Formal discovery is a very expensive alternative.

The discovery stage of divorce may take from several weeks to several months, depending on the amount, and complexity of marital assets. The court may set discovery deadlines in order to help manage the timeline of the discovery process.

After gathering information through discovery, you and your spouse may be able to reach a settlement agreement, which would allow you to bypass the rest of the divorce process. If not, you will move on to the next phase.

Mediation/Early Neutral Evaluation (ENE)

You and your spouse may choose to participate in a process to help you resolve any remaining disputed issues. Divorce mediation involves both spouses and possibly their attorneys sitting down with a neutral third-party mediator who tries to facilitate the parties reaching mutually agreeable resolutions to any remaining disputes. Usually, your attorney will seek out an experienced family law attorney or CPA to handle the mediation since they can give an unbiased opinion regarding how to split up the assets, develop a good parenting plan, and even handle spousal support issues.

Early Neutral Evaluation (ENE), like mediation, is a voluntary alternative dispute resolution process intended to help spouses resolve disputed issues relating to their children (Social ENE) and finances (Financial ENE). ENE is an evaluative process designed to provide an objective evaluation of the strengths and weaknesses of each party’s position. This “reality check” is often what it takes to help people let go of any unrealistic expectations and move toward settlement.

Stipulated Judgment and Divorce

While we describe this as the fourth of the stages of divorce, in reality, you and your spouse might reach and finalize a settlement agreement at any phase of your divorce. However, after you and your spouse have completed discovery and had the chance to work with a neutral third party toward resolving any remaining issues, chances are you are getting close to the finish line.

If you and your spouse are represented by attorneys, they will draw up a settlement agreement called the Stipulated Judgment and Decree, for you and your spouse to sign and the court to review and approve. You and your spouse may not even need to appear in court to have your divorce finalized in some cases. If you have not been represented by a lawyer throughout your case, you should definitely have limited-scope representation so that a qualified divorce attorney can review your agreement before you sign it and make sure you fully understand its terms.

If Your Divorce Doesn’t Settle

If you and your spouse still can’t settle your divorce even with the help of your attorneys, mediators and/or evaluators, you may have to proceed toward a divorce trial. Your attorney will identify witnesses and use the information gathered during discovery to support your position. However, even at this late stage of the divorce process, you and your spouse may reach a settlement agreement “on the courthouse steps.”

To learn more about the stages of the Minnesota divorce process, call Mundahl Law at 763-575-7930 or click here to schedule a 15-minute phone call with our Client Advocate.

Categories: Divorce