Tips to Minimize the Cost of Divorce or Child Custody Matters

Minnesota's ECM and ENE programs can provide quicker resolutions and lower costs for couples

By Doug Mentes, Esq. | Reviewed by Canaan Suitt, J.D. | Last updated on March 31, 2023

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Divorcing spouses fear what lies ahead when they decide to part ways. They are uncertain of the divorce process or cost of the divorce. They are fearful of the other spouse taking advantage of them. They know a Minnesota devorce lawyer could help, but at what cost?

Fortunately, district court staff can help divorcing couples understand filing fees and other concerns. They have been innovators in decreasing the amount of time and cost involved in resolving divorce cases, custody matters and child support in Minnesota—with settlement rates reported of 60 percent and higher through these programs.

What Is ECM?

Early case management, or ECM, is the early involvement of a judge or referee (“judicial officer”) in a case. After a divorce case is filed with the district court, court administrators schedule an initial case management conference (“ICMC”) within four weeks. It is an informal conference with your judicial officer. No disputed issues will be heard or decided by the court and the data sheet will not be made part of the court file.

The goal of the ICMC is to put litigants on a path to a quick divorce settlement and prevent litigants from taking steps to further polarize their positions. At the ICMC, the judicial officer will:

  • Educate the parties on family law matters, divorce procedure and divorce law
  • Educate the parties on alternative forms of dispute resolution (“ADR”)
  • Attempt to narrow the issues of the case
  • Incorporate agreed-upon issues into an ICMC order
  • Schedule an ENE to resolve the remaining disputed issues

What Is ENE, SENE, and FENE?

An ENE is an early neutral evaluation. There are two types:

  • Social early neutral evaluation (SENE), and
  • Financial early neutral evaluation (FENE)

The SENE is to resolve custody and parenting time disputes while an FENE is to resolve issues like division of assets and debts, real estate, maintenance, and spousal support. Both are voluntary but the court requests litigants complete the ENE process soon after the ICMC.

For SENEs, a team of one male and one female serve as the neutrals to alleviate any concerns of gender bias. The court will provide a roster of neutrals which will include experienced family law attorneys and mental health practitioners. For FENEs, only one neutral serves the parties.

The ENE sessions typically last three hours (which may be extended if it progresses toward settlement) and are structured the same:

  • The evaluator(s) briefly discuss the process
  • Each party is given time to present their version of events and requested outcome
  • The parties have an opportunity to respond to each other’s statements and questions from the evaluators
  • The evaluators discuss the matter between themselves in private
  • The evaluators present their recommendations to the parties (based on what the evaluators feel the outcome will be if the case is decided by the court)

The parties are free to take the evaluators’ advice and come to an agreement, or ignore the advice and return to court. Agreements reached during the ENE are often drafted by the evaluators, signed by the parties, and submitted to the court.

The ENE process is confidential. The evaluators will report the results to the court but will not provide any other information learned from the session. Participants can air all facts and grievances without risk of the information being used against them in court.

What’s the Cost of a Divorce Lawyer?

Many counties offer a sliding scale for attorney’s fees based on the litigants’ income.

If an ENE participant has hired an attorney, the neutral’s fee may be set at that attorney’s hourly rate. The combined fees of an attorney and neutral can get expensive, but evaluators and the courts will not provide legal advice. Only a licensed attorney can provide legal advice.

Those that have questions about the law or concerns over a potential settlement should first seek the advice of an experienced Minnesota family law attorney prior to taking part in an ENE.

For more information on this area, see our overviews of family law, divorce, and mediation and collaborative law.

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