Minnesota Marriage Dissolution Process


Marriage Dissolution / Divorce Process

No Fault Divorce

In Minnesota, Marriage Dissolution proceedings, or divorces, are viewed as "no fault" proceedings. This means that a spouse does not have to prove the other spouse was at fault or did something wrong to cause the breakdown of the marriage to obtain a divorce. Either spouse may commence a divorce action by simply alleging that there has been "an irretrievable breakdown in the marriage relationship" - in other words, that in their opinion, the marriage is dead and there is no chance of reconciliation. If one spouse feels this way, even if the other disagrees, the court will ultimately grant the dissolution of marriage. Early in the process, if you do not believe that there has been an irretrievable breakdown of the marriage, the option of marriage counseling is possible. Unfortunately, if a spouse has set their mind to divorcing the other, it is unlikely that counseling can repair the marital relationship.

Commencement of the Divorce Action

Once a decision to start a divorce action is made, one party will serve two documents, one titled "summons" the other titled "petition". The person starting the action is referred to as the petitioner; the other party will thereafter be referred to as the respondent. Occasionally, however, in very amicable divorces the parties may agree to act as "co-petitioners." A petition most typically is served by having a person other than the petitioner hand a copy of the petition to the respondent. It occasionally can also be served by mail subject to certain requirements. Many times, arrangements can be made ahead of time so that your spouse is aware of the time and location he or she will be served with a summons and petition, although unfortunately sometimes service comes as a complete surprise.

Petitioner versus Respondent

A question is often asked as to whether there is an advantage to being a petitioner versus a respondent. There is no real difference, except that the petitioner can obviously effect when the action is started, and sometimes, in what county. If you and your spouse separate, and your spouse moves to a different county before the action is commenced, the petitioning spouse can commence the action either in the county you reside in or the new county they have moved to. There are some perceived and actual differences as to how matters proceed, depending on which county they are "venued" (commenced) in. A second implication of being a petitioner versus a respondent is that ultimately, if the matter does proceed to trial, the petitioner is required to present his/her case first. This may have some minor implications relative to the cost of preparing for trial, especially it the matter settles before the respondent presents her/his case.

Summons and Petition

The summons is a simple legal notice that a divorce action has been commenced by the petitioner and advising how long the respondent has to serve an "answer" to the petition. It also contains a preliminary restraining order, preventing changes in insurance coverage and the disposition of property, except for the necessities of life or in the ordinary course of business. In Minnesota, unless the petitioner agrees to an extension the answer must be served within thirty days. If you ignore the service of a summons and petition for a longer period of time, the petitioner may serve a motion with the court requesting that default judgment be entered. This judgment will not only immediately dissolve the marriage terminating certain rights you have as a married person to rights such as health insurance. It may also result in the moving party being awarded rights and interests in property, as well as the loss by the respondent to certain rights, such as spousal maintenance (alimony) without the respondent having the opportunity to respond and defend their rights. While there are cases in which the court will subsequently set aside a default judgment, it is very important that you retain a lawyer to respond to a summons and petition within thirty days. Sometimes that response may be as simply as an agreement from the petitioner's attorney to extend the thirty day period to answer the petition.

The petition itself typically follows a simple format, which is not designed to argue your case in detail, but rather only provides "notice" to the other side of the very basic facts ultimately necessary for the court to decide the case. The petition will list the two party's names, addresses and ages. It will identify the names and ages of the party's children, if any, together with a general allegation of what “custody” or "parenting time” arrangement the petitioner believes to be in the best interest of the children. In Minnesota, over the years the family law bar has come up with innumerable labels and terms for "child custody”/”parenting time". It will identify to the best of the petitioner's knowledge the parties "real property" (land and building) ownership, including the homestead, and any vacation or investment real property the parties have. It will identify to the best of the petitioner's knowledge the party's other assets and liabilities.

At the end of the petition is a section referred to as a prayer for relief, where the petitioner will indicate in general their desire that the marriage be dissolved, as well as their desires as to custody/parenting time, child support, spousal maintenance, property and debt division, and allocation of attorney fees. In Minnesota, the court may order one party to pay part of the other's attorney fees, based on consideration of two factors, the first being need, and the second being whether one party's conduct has unnecessarily increased the attorney fees of the other party.

Initial Case Management Conference and Early Neutral Evaluations

In most counties in the Twin Cities Metropolitan area, as well as now many out state counties, after the filing of a summons and petition, the next step in the process will be an appearance at an Initial Case Management Conference ("ICMC"). ICMC’s are aimed at trying to expedite the processing of divorce cases, and minimizing conflict and the expense associated when parties quickly resort to litigating (resorting to the lawyers and the courts to decide disputes) all issues. As soon as a party files the petition or answer with the court, your matter will be assigned to one judge or referee, who in many counties will be responsible for all aspects of your case until its conclusion. Typically within thirty days thereafter, the court will schedule the ICMC. Both lawyers and both parties must appear, and the vast majority of judges and referees (judicial officers) will not allow any motions, including temporary motions, to be filed until the ICMC takes place.

Depending on the judicial officer, most ICMC's are fairly informal. The judicial officer will come into the courtroom, and give a small presentation to the parties. Literally all presentations are based on a common theme - the benefit of working cooperatively to reach a mediated settlement. The judicial officer will discuss the high cost, both financially and emotionally, of litigating your divorce issues rather than working towards an amicable settlement. The judicial officer will then discuss with the lawyers what issues they believe your case presents, what needs to be done to reach a resolution of those issues, what procedures the lawyers believe are necessary to prepare the matter for resolution (either through subsequent settlement or trial) and how much time will be needed to complete this work. At this point, it will be determined whether a temporary hearing is necessary to determine issues involving possession of the home, parenting of children, temporary child support and spousal maintenance, as well as temporary attorney fees, while the divorce proceeding is pending. Many times the courts will encourage the parties to participate in an early mediation sessions to determine temporary issues. On rare occasions in today's family law practice, a formal temporary hearing may be needed, as described below. In lieu of such a hearing, some judicial officers may request the lawyers follow a more informal process of simply writing the judicial officer a letter providing the economic data necessary to decide temporary issues together with brief argument. The judicial officer will then decide the temporary issue.

Many metropolitan counties, as well as more and more outstate counties, have developed several innovative tools aimed at facilitating quick resolution of traditionally volatile areas - custody/parenting time and economic disputes. If the court is advised a custody/parenting time is present, the judicial officer will suggest that the parties participate in an "Early Neutral Custody Evaluation," referred to as a Social Early Neutral Evaluation "SENE" or in some counties and in others a Custody and Parenting Time Early Neutral Evaluation "CPENE." In this process the parties and counsel will be quickly scheduled to meet with two experts on child custody matters, one male and one female. Many counties have rosters listing the names of people certified to act as an Early Neutral Custody Evaluator. The parties and counsel will meet for three hours with the evaluators, with each party then afforded the opportunity to explain their role in raising the children, and what type of a parenting schedule they believe to be in their children's best interests. The two evaluators will then briefly adjourn, and then return to advise the parties what recommendation would result from a full custody evaluation. Many parties are able to reach a settlement of most parenting time issues after hearing this informal report.

Financial Early Neutral Evaluations (FENE) allow the parties to meet with an accountant or lawyer neutral expert to assist the parties in preparing a balance sheet and help to negotiate a division of property. These experts can also assist in preparing cash flow summaries to help the parties settle issues of child support and spousal maintenance. As with social early neutral evaluations, the neutral may advise the parties what they believe will occur if the matter is fully litigated. As with Social ENEs, many counties provide rosters of lawyers and accountants certified to assist with FENE's in that county.

Immediate issues - temporary hearings

If alternative dispute resolution is not able or available to resolve temporary issues, many counties will allow formal hearings to decide temporary issues, including who will have temporary possession of the homestead during the proceeding, who will pay the mortgage, taxes, insurance and utilities on the homestead, what type of temporary custody/parenting arrangement is in the children's best interest, what amount of temporary “child support” is appropriate, what amount of temporary “spousal maintenance”, if any, is appropriate, who should pay other debt on a temporary basis, and whether there should be an award of temporary attorney fees. These requests are traditionally based upon written “motions” which is a written request for relief, with the “testimony” reflecting your position being summarized in a sworn, written affidavit. Sometimes you will also submit affidavits from other people in support of your position. The attorneys will then argue your position before a judge, who thereafter will issue a written order deciding the temporary issues.

Alternative Dispute Resolution

In almost all cases, you will be required to attempt some form of alternative dispute resolution. This will typically take the form of "mediation" which is a process in which a neutral third party, typically an attorney trained in mediation, will attempt to assist the parties in reaching their own compromise settlement of some or all issues between the parties. The mediator does not make decisions, but rather facilitates a discussion between the parties (sometimes alone and sometimes with the assistance of counsel) aimed at reaching settlement of your issues. The mediation process is confidential, and if you are not successful in reaching a mediated settlement, the judicial officer will never learn what positions either party took in mediation. As part of the mediation process, the mediator will request both parties provide an accurate summary of income, assets and liabilities. It is recognized that sometimes, one party controls some or all of this information, and skilled mediators attempt to assure that there is a full and fair disclosure of financial information, and a full and fair discussion of the issues.

Discovery

In order to make informed decisions as to division of marital property, and appropriate amounts of child support and spousal maintenance, it is necessary for each party to be fully informed of identity of each parties' income and assets. This information is typically exchanged through a process known as discovery. This is a process in which the lawyers may utilize numerous techniques for obtaining the financial information necessary to fairly identify and value all income and assets. The lawyers may informally by letter request the information they feel is necessary to identify all marital income and assets, or, in some cases may feel the need to serve "Interrogatories" and "Requests for Production of Documents” which are formal questions and requests for financial information and documents, such as tax returns, bank statements, financial statements and other information, which must be answered and sworn to under oath, within thirty days. In today's practice, some court's control what discovery they will allow, and may not immediately allow for the service of formal discovery, preferring the parties first use informal discovery. The attorneys may also notice the depositions of the parties themselves, or other people who may have relevant information, such as bankers and business associates. At a deposition the witness is sworn under oath, and the attorneys ask questions of the witnesses, which testimony is preserved in writing by a court reporter. The attorneys may also employ experts, such as "vocational evaluators," in the event it is alleged that a spouse who has not been working or who has only been working part time, is able to earn income to contribute to their support. They may also employ accountants or other business valuation experts to appraise family-owned or closely-held businesses. They may also employ other experts to appraise other assets such as real property and personal property, such as furnishings, jewelry and artwork.

Custody/Parenting Time

If you and your spouse have been unable to resolve issues involving your children, it may be necessary to have a formal custody/parenting-time evaluation. There is generally a monitory cost associated with this evaluation. This evaluation can be conducted by the Court Services workers in the county your action is venued in, if the county has such a department. In most counties this work is contracted out to third parties. Some parties, however, prefer to retain their own neutral expert, typically a child psychologist with expertise in conducting such evaluations. Private evaluations typically are more expensive than those conducted by Court Services. Whoever conducts the evaluation, however, will interview you, your children, and such third parties who have relevant information as are necessary, including other family members, friends, neighbors, teachers, doctors and counselors. They will observe you interacting with your children, and may also administer psychological testing. At the end of this process, some evaluators will first make an oral presentation of their findings in the hope that their summary will facilitate settlement. If not, a formal written report is issued.

Settlement discussions and pretrial

After discovery is completed, the attorneys will typically work with you to formulate a settlement proposal which is presented to the other side, either as part of a settlement meeting at one of the attorney's offices, or simply through a letter sent to the other lawyer. The attorneys will prepare a balance sheet summarizing your assets and liabilities. In Minnesota, the law requires an "Equitable Division of Property," which typically, but not always indicates an equal division of property. Parenting time proposals may also suggest the future use of a "Visitation Expeditor" or "Parenting Consultant" who are neutral third parties retained to assist in resolving future parenting and parenting time disputes. When the parties have children, settlement discussions will also involve "child support", which is currently set pursuant to "child support guidelines" based on a comparison of the gross incomes of both parties, and the amount of time the children will spend with each party. If one of the parties lacks the resources to support themselves, settlement discussions will also involve requests for either temporary or permanent "spousal maintenance." Pursuant to Minnesota Law, spousal maintenance while based on a consideration of several factors, ultimately will be based upon a consideration of the marital standard of living, the needs of the spouse requesting maintenance and the ability of that spouse to meet those needs as compared to the needs of the spouse from whom maintenance is sought, and their ability to meet their own needs and still contribute to the support of the requesting spouse. Maintenance may be temporary or permanent, depending on the facts of the case, including length of marriage whether there is any uncertainty as to if the spouse requesting maintenance will ever be able to become fully self supporting.

It also possible, as part of settlement agreements to contractually limit the amount and duration of spousal maintenance, and limit or prevent altogether any future modification of maintenance, though what is known as a "Karon waiver". Benefits of such waivers involve certainty to both parties as to amount and duration of maintenance. Risks also are possible, if a party contracts to a set term and amount of maintenance, and either through illness or job loss, either cannot meet their obligation or may need an extension of their award, as most waivers require the court to give up jurisdiction to make such a change. Importantly, Karon waivers may only be agreed upon by both parties. If there is no such agreement, a court may never order such limitations and waivers of rights to future "modification" of the amount or duration of maintenance.

Ultimately, if the parties cannot resolve some or all issues involving parenting, property valuation or division, or income allocation through child support and maintenance, the court will schedule one last "pre-trial" to attempt to facilitate a settlement. If unsuccessful, the matter will be set for trial.

Trial

While upwards of 95% of all cases settle short of trial, the most expensive and acrimonious manner of resolving your differences with your spouse is through a formal trial - and perhaps nowhere is the retention of skilled counsel more important. Trial involves extensive study of all facts and evidence relevant to your case, extensive preparation of witnesses for testimony, extensive preparation to conduct examination (questioning) of witnesses, extension preparation of exhibits summarizing your position as to the evidence, hopefully in a form understandable and convincing to the trial judge, strategy as to what witnesses will be called and in what order, as well as the actual trial examination of witnesses, which often, especially when "cross examining" opposing witnesses, requires the lawyer to think on their feet, and prepare questions on the spot as they hear evasive or unexpected answers.

The success Fellows of the Minnesota Chapter of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers have had is based in part on the business sophistication and experience of many of our attorneys. That experience carries forward after trial, to the detailed written summations of the evidence and the law, submitted to the trial judge either immediately prior to or after trial, depending on the preferences of the judicial officer assigned to your case.

Post trial and appeal

Following trial and final written submissions, the judicial officer is allowed up to ninety days to issue written "Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law, Order for Judgment and Judgment and Decree" which is the legal document dissolving your marriage and deciding all issues involving your children, property division, child support, spousal maintenance and attorney fees. After the issuance of the Judgment and Decree, Minnesota Law has a set procedure and time limit to allow either party to ask the court to correct any perceived or actual errors; to argue to the court to change its' decision; or, to argue that based on alleged errors, a new trial should take place. Although a new trial is rarely granted, it is not uncommon, especially when presented with complex issues, for the Court is slightly amend its' decision following the original judgment and decree.

Thereafter, if either party is still dissatisfied with the result, they may "appeal" the lower court ruling to the Minnesota Court of Appeals. Such appeals are of right, and take place before a three judge panel, after extensive briefing and oral argument to the Court of Appeals. However, once the appeal is filed, the Court of Appeals will automatically put the appeal on hold, and requires it's own attempt at alternative dispute resolution known as appellate mediation. If mediation is not successful, the entire appeal process may take upwards of a year after the trial court's final decision. The Court of Appeals may affirm all decisions outright, reverse all decisions outright, or may affirm some parts of the decree while reversing others. If a party thereafter is dissatisfied with a ruling of the Court of Appeals, they may seek discretionary review by the Minnesota Supreme Court. The Supreme Court however, denies review of most cases, and only chooses to hear a few family law cases each year. Those cases selected for review typically involve novel factual or legal issues.