Dan is a leader in the field of transformative mediation. He is the author of the chapter on divorce mediation in the Institute for the Study of Conflict Transformation's ("ISCT") TRANSFORMATIVE MEDIATION SOURCEBOOK. He is a Past Chair of the Minnesota State Bar Association's Alternative Dispute Resolution Section. He served for 6 years on the Mi ... more
Essentially, a Social Early Neutral Evaluation is similar to mediation in that it is a form of alternative dispute resolution that is voluntary and non-binding. The difference is that with ordinary mediation, the mediator generally will not take a position. Whereas the evaluators presiding over an SENE are specifically tasked to give their recommendations, as a way to help the parties reach a settlement.
Mediation is confidential and non-binding. Mediators cannot force the parties into a settlement. Rather, mediators keep everyone focused and facilitate the exchange of information. Mediation is not appropriate in all cases, particularly those in which there is a history of domestic abuse among the parties. The actions and concessions of a party during mediation cannot be used against them in court pursuant to the rules of evidence.
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.
Many individuals mistakenly believe that they’ve abandoned their equity in the family home by moving out. While the court may award the family home to the spouse living in it at the time the divorce is heard, the spouse that moved out will typically be awarded other property or a cash settlement equal to his or her equity in the home. The bottom line here is that you don’t give up your equity in the marital home by moving out.
People often ask, “Does mediation really work?” In a word, yes. We know from years of research that when you compare couples who have mediated their divorce with couples who go through an adversarial divorce, mediating couples are more likely to be satisfied with the process and the results, likely to take less time and spend less money, and are less likely to go back to court later to fight about something.
Minnesota is a purely "no-fault" divorce state, meaning that you can't allege that your spouse's wrongdoing was the cause of the divorce. Instead, most divorces are based on the grounds that the parties have irreconcilable differences that have led to the breakdown of the marriage. However, fault may be considered by the court as a factor in dividing property or awarding alimony. To learn more about whether Minnesota uses fault as a determining factor in alimony and property issues, see Nolo's Essential Guide to Divorce, by Emily Doskow.
The major difference between a legal separation and a divorce is that if you have a legal separation, you are still married. The wife may not resume using her former name. If you decide you want to end your marriage after a legal separation is complete, you will need to go through the court process to get divorced. Some couples choose legal separation because of religious beliefs or moral values against divorce. In other cases, there may be insurance or other financial reasons for a legal separation.
SUPERIOR SERVICE: All mediators are not created equal! Although mediators are not decision makers, they do have a significant impact on your divorce process. Mediators set the tone and guide you through the rough patches. Therefore, it is wise to interview mediators and select one who respects your sense of fairness, recognizes the importance of self-determination, helps generate creative solutions and facilitates workable agreements.
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.
In reality, every divorce requires both formal legal procedures as well as some kind of settlement negotiations. In Minnesota, even if you prefer to litigate and leave every decision up to the judge, the rules require that before the Court will decide your case, parties must attempt resolution through some form of Alternative Dispute Resolution, of which mediation is still the most common. 
In this first stage, the mediator works with you and your spouse to lay a foundation for the rest of the mediation. You give the mediator background information about your situation, and the mediator explains how the mediation will be conducted. Depending on how well you and your spouse communicate and what the issues are in your case, the mediator suggests an approach that should optimize the chances of reaching an agreement. You'll assess the issues on which you and your spouse agree or disagree, helping you to work together on an agenda for the rest of the mediation.
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.
Each spouse has the right to sell, give away, or dispose of any property the couple owns. For example, either person can withdraw money from a joint bank account. Either can charge on a joint credit card. There are some exceptions to this general rule. Neither spouse has the right to cash checks made out to the other spouse. Neither spouse can withdraw money from a bank account if it is in the name of the other spouse only. Neither spouse can sell a motor vehicle that is in the name of the other spouse. Neither can sell real estate that is in both names or in the name of one spouse.