It is understandable that when people reach agreements together based upon what they think is right and fair, their agreements are much more sustainable going forward than court orders that tell the parties what they must do or not do, pay or give to the other party. In fact, a great advantage of mediating your divorce settlement is that you will make all the decisions together about what is best for you both and for your children as you go forward.
A custody determination basically comes down to figuring out how the children’s time will be divided between the parents, and how decisions will be made. If you and your spouse can reach an agreement, it will be accepted by the judge unless it is not to be in the child’s best interest. If you cannot reach a custody agreement, Minnesota child custody law provides for the judge to decide the issue, after considering the following factors:
“Dear Spouse: I very much regret that we have been unable to agree to a suitable interim parenting time schedule for the children pending the temporary relief hearing scheduled for xx/xx/xx. In order to spare the children the experience of our conflict over this issue, I will abide by the schedule you have unilaterally dictated while we await court action. Nevertheless, I want to make clear my strong objection to this interim schedule, which we both know is not in the children’s best interests.”
Any offers made during mediation, or any possibilities that are discussed, cannot be disclosed to a court. This creates a setting where the parties can more freely discuss and explore how far from their “stance” they might be willing to go. A trial, or any type of litigation is very costly, so money saved by resolving issues in mediation, can often become part of a solution. It doesn’t mean that you can take something like a bank account balance or a mental health condition, mention it in mediation, and therefore make it non-disclosable. Facts, such as these, mentioned in mediation, can indeed become part of a court case if the situation is not resolved in mediation. It is the discussions and offers that remain confidential.
A mediator’s job is to get you to reach an agreement. Their sense of professional fulfillment is satisfied when an agreement is reached. Unfortunately, all too often, this can result in a person agreeing to things that are contrary to his or her interests, contrary to what the Court would order, and — in the worst case — contrary to the best interests of the children. Therefore, it is critically important to either have an attorney with you at the mediation session, or at least have one on retainer at the time, to consult before you agree to anything.
In order for the mediation to be successful, you, your spouse, and the mediator all need to be as fully informed as possible about the facts of your case. This is the information gathering stage. Sometimes it begins during the first session; sometimes it starts after that session. If information that you and the mediator need is unavailable or in dispute, the mediator will try to help you find ways to get it or to determine what is correct. For example, you might need the policy number and other details of a life insurance policy. If you can’t locate your copy of the policy, the mediator might suggest ways to get this information, such as contacting the broker who sold you the policy or writing to the insurance company.
For example, if there are two automobiles, each spouse is usually given one of them. This is especially true if the cars are nearly equal in value. If there is only one automobile, the court often awards it to the spouse who has the greater need for transportation. Extra items of personal property may be awarded to the other spouse so that the overall value of each share remains the same. Retirement accounts and whole life insurance policies are property too.
The reasons for divorce in Minnesota include general and no-fault reasons. Proper grounds for the divorce must be given. No-fault reasons for the divorce include an irreparable breakdown of the marriage for reasons including living separately for 6 months or serious conflict between the couple. General reasons include only one reason, which is the irrevocable disrepair of the marriage with no chance of repair.
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.
This is based on the outdated belief that women know less about the marital finances than their husbands, therefore will not be left with a favorable outcome in the divorce. It is important to remember divorce mediators are neutral and have no interest in either spouse “winning.” Finally, most people believe couples who are barely speaking could not possibly benefit from divorce mediation. Divorce mediators are highly trained in alternative dispute resolution and are skilled at working with those who have significant levels of anger between them. Obviously, both parties will be required to speak at some point, but the divorce mediator may be able to help that happen.
The respondent may disagree with the relief asked for by the petitioner and want the court to hear his or her side. The respondent then must serve an Answer on the petitioner's attorney within 30 days of the date the respondent was served. An Answer is a legal paper saying what the respondent says back to the Petition. Just calling up the petitioner to say something like "I don't like this" is not an Answer. The Answer may be mailed to the petitioner's lawyer. It does not need to be personally served. The Answer states whether the respondent thinks the petitioner's statements in the petition are true or false. It also tells the court what the respondent wants.
Notwithstanding all of the above, mediation can often be the process that helps break an impasse and result in a reasonable settlement of one’s case. But for mediation to work, both parties must be prepared to compromise. If you approach mediation with the attitude that it will be an opportunity to convince the other party to do things your way, mediation will likely fail. That said, be careful not to concede too much. A lawyer can give you an appreciation of where the line is between generous cooperation and foolish capitulation.
In some cases, a spouse may be reluctant to attend mediation due to misperceptions they have regarding the mediation process. One party may feel the mediator will decide crucial issues without input. In reality, a divorce mediator cannot compel either spouse to do—or refrain from doing—anything. Others may feel a mediator can single-handedly “fix” all issues in the divorce. If one spouse fails to disclose all relevant facts related to the case, the mediator will be unable to achieve real results. In some cases, women may feel their husband will fare better during the mediation.
In mediation, the mediator’s role is not decision maker, but is to act as a neutral support system for both parties equally. The mediator helps the couple identify all the issues that they need to resolve around their divorce, gives them information and education about the law and other facts around those issues, and facilitates their discussion of those issues so that the parties themselves can decide what is the best course of action for them.
The complexity of the issues and ability of the individuals to be flexible as they negotiate a fair agreement determines the length of the mediation. Every case is different, but the average case usually takes at least three to four two-hour mediation sessions, spread out over at least a month or two. More complex cases can take four to six months to complete.
Each divorce mediator will have his or her own approach, however, some of the basics will likely remain the same. You will probably speak to the mediator on the phone, providing information about your marriage your family and the issues at hand. Some mediators will ask you for a great deal of information, while others may prefer to stick with the basics until meeting both parties. During the first meeting, the mediator will explain how the divorce mediation process will proceed. All parties may meet in the same room at all times, or the mediator may meet with each party separately at least one time.
To ensure you cover everything, create a master list of all your assets and possessions—regardless of whether an item is thought to be yours or your spouse’s. The master list should include all real property (house, rental properties, vacation homes), personal property (books, DVDs, furniture, artwork, jewelry), vehicles (including boats, motorcycles, ATVs), bank accounts (joint and separate, checking, savings), credit cards, retirement accounts, life insurance policies, annuities, stocks and other financial products. Account for everything you own.
If you represent yourself in the divorce you will be called a “pro se litigant.” In all Minnesota district courts, there are forms that pro se litigants in divorce cases can use. You should check with your local courthouse or law library or the Minnesota State Courts website (www.mncourts.gov/forms) for more information about where to get these forms.
You can ask the court for an Order for Protection. It will order the abuser to stop all the abuse and threats. It can also order the abuser to leave the home, to stay away from your work place or school. It can provide for temporary custody, child support and use of the car or home. It can also do other things to protect you and the children. It doesn't matter whether or not you've started a divorce or if you're still living together.