When it comes to divorce in Minnesota, it’s important to know that the state favors “equitable distribution.” This simply means that all assets are divided equally among both parties regardless of either party’s wishes. Sometimes, though, this doesn’t necessarily mean that “equitable” will be equal. Rather, the word fair is more the proper term to be used when dealing with property distribution.
Mediation is one of the most frequently used methods of negotiating a divorce settlement. In divorce mediation, you and your spouse—or, in some cases, the two of you and your respective lawyers—hire a neutral third party, called a mediator, to meet with you in an effort to discuss and resolve the issues in your divorce. The mediator doesn't make decisions for you, but serves as a facilitator to help you and your spouse figure out what's best.
Conversely, there is no way to finalize your divorce through mediation alone. Even if you reach a tentative agreement in mediation, this agreement must be formalized in a written stipulation, signed by both parties and their attorneys, and ultimately approved by the Court.  This signed stipulation — not your verbal agreements from mediation sessions — is what becomes the enforceable terms of your divorce, and should be prepared or at least reviewed and revised by your lawyer before you sign.
This can be problematic if a party needs to commence a divorce in Minnesota immediately, but neither party has yet been residing here for the requisite six-month period. In such cases, one should seriously consider a legal separation, which has no length-of-residency requirement, and which can afford much of the relief afforded by divorce, such as determinations of property possession, custody, parenting time, child support, and spousal maintenance.  Later, after the six-month residence requirement is satisfied, the case can be converted to one for divorce.
Many of the facts and circumstances that a divorcing spouse feels are important, are likely to be of little importance to the court. It‘s unrealistic to assume a judge can review all of the circumstances that led to the divorce. The issues are simply too complex, the court lacks time to hear all of it, and in the end, they aren’t usually relevant to the case, especially in a no-fault state like Minnesota.
Joe Dillon, MBA is a professional divorce mediator and founder of Equitable Mediation Services. Joe is passionate about helping couples avoid the destruction of attorney-driven litigation and knows first-hand that the right information, combined with the right expertise and the right kind of support can make the challenging process of divorce less expensive, less time-consuming and less stressful for divorcing couples and their families.
In reality, because mediation is such an adaptable and holistic approach to divorce, these common concerns are all well handled in the mediation setting. In fact, almost any divorce case, or really any family law matter, is suitable for mediation and the parties can successfully resolve their issues without the great expense and emotional costs of litigating.
Finally, the parties in mediation are often surprised to hear their mediator suggest that they consider retaining consulting attorneys. The thought is that they chose to mediate to avoid fighting their case out with attorneys and they don’t want that extraordinary expense. However, the role of a consulting attorney in mediation is very different than the role of a litigation advocate and is a very helpful assistance when mediating.
“Your Honor, the Petitioner moved out four months ago, and since then he has only had the children every other weekend, by his own acquiescence. Now all of a sudden he wants custody [or more parenting time, as the case may be]. This is clearly a disingenuous request which should be summarily denied. The schedule the parties have been following has worked well for the children, and for the sake of their sense of stability and continuity, it should continue.”
NO, THEY ARE NOT! I can’t tell you the number of times someone comes to me with this same sad predicament. For several months or years, the party has been paying less child support or spousal maintenance by verbal agreement with the other party, only to be socked later with an arrears judgment for $20,000, $30,000, or $40,000, as the case may be. The only way to protect yourself from this is to have the agreement drafted up and approved by the court in writing.