In Minnesota, family law courts expect divorcing spouses and their lawyers to make every effort to resolve disputes outside of court, if possible. This does not mean that every divorce is amicable. It is important to keep in mind that in divorce, neither party actually "wins" anything.
The trouble is, many spouses have no idea what the issues really are when they head into divorce. For many, divorce will be their first touchpoint with the Minnesota legal system. To help couples understand the process and potential issues that may result in escalated disputes, the courts offer an Early Neutral Evaluation (ENE) program.
What does ENE do?
First, it must be made clear that not every district court in the state makes the program available. (Call your local court to determine whether the program is available in your county.)
Those counties that do provide the service offer couples the chance to meet with a neutral, court-appointed advisor to review the various issues and potential hotspots for dispute. The ENE program is only made available after the divorce paperwork has been officially filed with the local court and there will be a deadline for deciding whether to participate.
The independent evaluator will review issues such as:
- Parenting time, visitation rights
- Money and spousal support
- Marital and separate property
As the list indicates, disputes the disputes generally break down into two broad categories, i.e. custody and children's issues (social ENE) and economic/financial matters. Spouses may choose to participate in either or both ENE evaluations.
Why not elect the ENE option?
While the idea of agreeing to an ENE sounds like a perfect answer to help resolve potential disputes, there are good reasons many spouses choose to avoid it. The independent evaluator will review your case together and many spouses choose not to participate, generally stating reasons related to:
- History of abuse, fear of spouse in a confrontational situation
- No legal representation but the other spouse will have an attorney present
- Lack of honesty, distrust in what the other spouse will have to say
- The other spouse suffers mental or emotional health problems
Social ENE about custody may not be voluntary
If the judge determines that custody disputes are heading toward a protracted emotional dispute that could effect the welfare of the children, your case may be referred to Family Court Services for mandatory participation in the social ENE process.
To make sure the social ENE takes into account the needs and concerns of both parents, a male and a female evaluator will typically be assigned. The evaluation session will typically last about three hours and attorneys for both parties may be present. Additional sessions may be scheduled, but you should expect the judge to impose a deadline of 30 to 90 days for completion.
Talk to an experienced Minnesota family law attorney if you think the ENE program may be right for your divorce.