In Dakota County MN, the courts are now requiring that couples wanting a Dakota County divorce to go through an early neutral evaluation process.
The program is aimed at lessening the burden on the court docket while simultaneously connecting divorcing couples, lawyers, judges, and neutrals early in the divorce process. In this way, the courts hope to resolve many of the acrimonious divorce disputes and achieve relatively easy settlement of cases.
The First Judicial District website provides further information about Dakota County early neutral evaluations. As the website explains, divorcing couples can choose to participate in:
- a Financial ENE (“FENE”) to resolve their financial disputes and/or,
- a custody and parenting time (Social ENE or “SENE”) to resolve their disputes regarding their children.
In my opinion (in the majority of instances) FENE and SENE are great programs. The benefits associated with the early neutral evaluation include:
- lessened fees for attorneys and court costs for litigated divorces
- increased cooperation for divorcing couples
- decrease in the amount of time spent in court and the length of the divorce
- less hurt feelings and anger typically associated with contested divorces and trials
- quicker more efficient process
There are some drawbacks to the early neutral evaluation process.
For instance, if a party wants to establish child support early on in the case, it may be difficult to do so without an agreement by the other side. This would mean that a party could agree to a FENE or an SENE at that initial case management conference (ICMC) and then wait to schedule the FENE or SENE. In the meantime, the other party could contest paternity or some other matter which would delay payment of child support. The party who has physical custody of the children may still be forced to file a motion for temporary relief to get child support out of the other side.
If this is the case, the party will be forced to pay the motion filing fees, his or her attorney fees, and the time and expense to attend a temporary relief hearing. Furthermore, they have already agreed to attend and FENE or SENE which will cost them more money.
The problem can be that the divorcing parties simply need a court order to enforce visitation, parenting time, custody, and spousal maintenance. Without the court order they are left in limbo waiting for a hopeful positive resolution through a FENE or SENE – which is certainly not guaranteed.
The divorcing parties will typically hear option about ways in which their divorce can proceed at the ICMC. The court will explain that the parties can choose traditional litigation or through the ENE process. Should the parties opt for ENE, they then select the neutrals who will be helping them to mediate and resolve the divorce issues.
Conversely, if the parties choose to litigate the case, the court will set the matter for pre-trial. This means that there is little chance for settlement using the highly qualified neutrals. It is certainly something that should not be decided lightly. Furthermore, the courts can order mediation, guardian-ad-litems (GAL), and other things which can be more costly than an ENE.
The choice of ENE neutrals
There are generally two different paths that cases can go on as I discussed above. For cases which involve custody or parenting issues, the divorcing couples will choose from a list of qualified neutrals who are either a team or a single evaluator. The neutrals are often lawyers or therapists who are experienced in the family law system. Cases involving financial issues are often referred to family law attorneys and/or accountants. In this way, the FENE will evaluate the case form a financial basis and advise the parties on how they might find a common ground.
The costs of the FENE or SENE in Dakota County
At the time of the first conference – the ICMC - the parties will discuss the costs of the FENE or SENE. The costs are determined based upon a party’s income. Or, if the parties each have an attorney, the rate charged by the party’s Dakota County divorce attorney.
Click here for the SENE fee schedule in Dakota County.
Click here for the ENE fee schedule in Dakota County.
I hope this post was helpful in providing information on the ENE process in the First Judicial District and Dakota County MN. Again, the process is meant to benefit the parties and the court-system writ-large. It isn’t always perfect, but it can result in a much more pleasant divorce and happier parties in the end.
For further questions, you should speak with your Minnesota divorce lawyer.