Although many of Ms. Serwat’s clients reach a complete divorce settlement without retaining an attorney; some need and/or want legal representation. If your situation warrants legal representation or if you simply feel better knowing that you are legally represented your lawyer is welcome to participate with you in the mediation process. Starting divorce mediation without attorneys in no way limits your right to retain an attorney in the future and/or appear in court.
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.
Mediation is a forum in which a neutral mediator facilitates communication between parties to promote reconciliation, understanding, and settlement. Mediation is particularly suited to divorces and other family law proceedings because there is likely to be a continuing relationship between the parties, especially if minor children are involved. Many divorcing couples find mediation allows them to avoid the high financial and emotional costs of a litigated divorce. Because settlement is generally quicker, costs are reduced.
In some cases, the court may order spousal maintenance for a limited time while the spouse returns to school or trains for employment. Permanent spousal maintenance may be awarded if the court finds that one of you will not be able to adequately support yourself. The court will consider age, health, education, work experience, skills and other factors.
All that being said, be aware that contesting the divorce will add to the duration and expense of the case. Contesting the divorce itself can buy you some time during which to pursue reconciliation, and can be the leverage to obtain your spouse’s agreement to therapy or other reconciliation efforts, but at the end of the day, a persistent party will be able to obtain the divorce.
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.
This can be a very complex situation. A spouse can hide a lot of income through a business, which can greatly affect what you may be entitled to in the divorce. Further, it may not be for the best interest of both spouses if a profitable business is split up. There are many issues and pitfalls that arise when a business is involved in a divorce. You should consult with an attorney who understands both the divorce and the business issues.
Some spouses are under the impression that they must obtain a legal separation to get divorced. To the contrary, legal separation is an alternative to divorce, but the process is almost identical: you file legal paperwork, deal with all the same issues in a divorce, and ask a judge for an order of legal separation. If you plan to divorce, a legal separation is unnecessary and will only increase the total cost of the divorce.
Finally, mediation can be substantially less expensive than the court process. When parties hire a mediator from Bloch & Whitehouse, P.A., they typically split our reasonable hourly rate equally between them. By contrast, if both parties hire lawyers, the cost for each party could be double or triple the cost for each party’s attorney. Moreover, significant court costs and other fees are minimized as a result of choosing mediation.
If you can prove that an item of property was "non-marital," the court will not usually award that property to your spouse. Non-marital property is property owned by one of you before your marriage, or was a gift or inheritance to you alone during your marriage. Portions of a personal injury or Workers Compensation award might also be non-marital. The court may award non-marital property to the non-owner spouse only if it would cause unfair hardship or under other limited circumstances.
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 for where the line is between generous cooperation and foolish capitulation.
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.
Fees may be charged on an hourly basis, or by the day or half-day. In general, mediators help the parties meet, explore options, and negotiate a mutual settlement to resolve their dispute. Mediators do not determine who is right or wrong. Instead, they help the parties reach a solution on their own that works for them. Parties should seek mediators with mediation training, experience, and specific knowledge of family law. It's also important to consider the mediator's style and mediation philosophy.
In a very limited number of divorce mediations, one spouse feels the mediator favors the other spouse. In such a case resolution is unlikely to occur. If a spouse is concealing issues during mediation, the mediator cannot compel him or her to reveal such things as accurate assets or income. In contrast, an attorney can depose the spouse, require financial information or even counsel the client to hire a forensic accountant. Divorce mediators don’t have the authority a judge has, meaning the success of the mediation is wholly dependent on the cooperation between the parties.
Once the decision to mediate is made, it is necessary to find a mediator. Many counties have community-based or court-annexed mediation centers. If the mediation is court-ordered, the court may appoint a mediator, or will allow the parties to agree upon a qualified mediator. Both lawyers and non-lawyers serve as mediators. The fees charged vary from mediator to mediator and from case to case.
It is important to understand that each case is unique; however, a number of key factors influence the length (and cost) of your process. The first factor is preparation. Completing the requested preparations in advance and supplying the necessary documentation allows us to move more quickly. The second factor is complexity. Certain situations are simply more complicated to work through than others. That said, even the most complicated cases can be settled through mediation. During your free consultation, I am typically able to identify potentially complicating factors. Third is emotional readiness and conflict. Often times divorcing spouses are in a different stage of readiness; these differences can lead to conflict which may lengthen the time needed to resolve the issues. When you both feel ready to move forward and you are able to discuss the issues without a lot of conflict the process tends to move more quickly. Regardless of your particular situation, I am committed to helping all of my clients complete mediation as efficiently and cost effectively as possible, and believe that taking a divorce education class prior to beginning any divorce process can greatly increase your likelihood of success and efficiency.
Under both Minnesota law,  and federal law,  as long as you yourself are a party to the conversation, it is lawful for you to record that conversation, even secretly. Furthermore, such recordings happen often enough in family practice that you are wise to assume that any telephone conversation with your spouse is in fact being recorded, and to temper your speech accordingly — i.e., no anger, name-calling, or spiteful speech of any kind.
If the parties cannot agree on custody, the court will usually order county, court or social services or a guardian ad litem to investigate the ability of each parent to care for and raise the children. The social worker, court services worker or guardian ad litem will usually interview each parent. They will contact friends and family, teachers, counselors, doctors, and other professionals who have seen the family. The investigator then writes a report to the court and makes a recommendation about custody. Your attorney may be given a copy of the report. The parties are usually required to pay the costs of a custody investigation based on their ability to pay. The court does not have to accept the recommendation of the investigator, but considers it very seriously.
If there are children of the marriage, each spouse has the right to decide where the children live or go to school, whether they should see a doctor, and can make other arrangements that need to be made. These decisions are left to the parents, as long as the children are not being hurt. If the children are being hurt, other people might become involved —doctors or nurses, school personnel, community workers or the police. If you do not want your spouse to take or visit the children because you are afraid the children will not be returned or will be harmed, you do not have to let the children go. However, if there is not a threat that your spouse will kidnap the children, you should think about the children's best interests and whether it would be good for them to see their other parent. If you are concerned about your spouse's visits, consider getting a custody order. If there are children who were born before the marriage and there has been no adoption or custody order, the mother has sole custody in Minnesota until there is a court order to the contrary.