Don’t ignore it! First, you should read the Summons and Petition completely and decide whether you agree with what it says or not. Second, you should make sure you note any hearing dates. This will give you your timeframe for responding the the Petition. If you do not go to the hearing, the case will end in a default decision and your spouse will receive whatever he or she asked for in the Petition. If you have any objections, or if you do not understand what the Summons and Petition say, contact an attorney for guidance.
The only way to force a spouse out of the house where he or she resides is to get a Court Order. If you or your child has been the victim of domestic abuse by your spouse, you can get an Order for Protection immediately, which will bar your spouse from the house. Otherwise, absent an agreement, the soonest you’ll get an order for exclusive occupancy of the home would be with the issuance of an Order for Temporary Relief, which usually takes anywhere from about one to five months to obtain, depending on the county, the judge, and the speed of your attorney.
In cases where you and your spouse cannot come to an agreement on major issues, the judge will schedule a bench or jury trial that will require you and your spouse to present arguments supporting your respective positions. In the vast majority of trials, it is the attorneys with trial experience that do most of the arguing and presenting of evidence. In addition to the legal fees paid to the attorneys, there are usually many court costs involved in a trial and pre-trial proceedings.
As a family law attorney and mediator for almost 30 years, I spend a great deal of time educating prospective clients and the public about the many benefits of choosing to mediate their divorce rather than selecting the more traditional litigation path. Even though divorce mediation is much less costly, less time consuming, and less divisive and stressful than the adversarial model of litigation, I often hear the same three concerns raised about mediation.
1) Is the lawyer being paid? If there is plenty of unearned money in your trust account to pay for your lawyer’s pending workload, this shouldn’t be a factor. However, if the initial retainer has been used up, and an additional retainer has not been provided, or you have not promptly paid a bill from your attorney, this may be at the root of your lawyer’s lack of attention to your case.
Court rules now require both sides to try ways other than court to resolve their differences. There are many other ways to reach agreements called alternative dispute resolution (ADR) methods. Make sure you know all your choices before deciding on a method. The parties may be asked to pay for the cost of ADR. Most ADR methods let you stop the process at any time without reaching an agreement.
Divorce mediation is an alternative to court litigation for resolving disputes that arise as two people separate their lives. A neutral third party called a “mediator” helps the couple to work through the issues of their divorce and reach a mutually agreeable settlement. Please note that mediation may not be safe or appropriate for individuals with a history or fear of domestic violence.
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.
There is one advantage to being the petitioner. If the parties reside in different counties, the petitioner determines venue (location) by filing for divorce in the county of choice. Venue can be critical because judicial views on custody and alimony vary from county to county. The respondent can request a change in venue, but will need to show a good reason for the change.
In order to make custody determinations the court evaluates the best interests of the children using 13 key factors which are defined in MN 518.17.In addition to being financially expensive, formal custody evaluations are also often highly adversarial and emotionally damaging for all involved, especially the children. In the end, a “victory” is often bittersweet and both parents will have some amount of court ordered parenting time. Rather than seek to prove that one parent is better than the other, it is critical to recognize that both parents are important in different ways – each providing that which can only be given by a mother or a father. You are the experts about your life and your children. You are the best qualified to make decisions about how to restructure your family and parenting time after divorce. As your mediator, I help you evaluate and discuss parenting time options and make child-focused decisions about how each of you will remain significantly involved with your children.
Another helpful approach for very high-conflict cases can include bringing an additional professional into the mix, such as a marriage and family therapist, who can meet with one or both parties in the mediation session or separately, as appropriate. The goal of the therapist is not to reconcile the parties, but to help them develop a better ability to communicate around the emotional roadblocks that they are facing. In the end, by going through the mediation process together and reaching reasonable solutions to the issues facing them, parties that mediate learn new ways of working together as they go forward into their new future. This is a huge benefit, especially when children and co-parenting are involved.
If you cannot afford to pay an attorney, you may be able to get assistance from the legal services office in your area. A list of the legal aid offices in Minnesota begins on the next page. You must meet low-income guidelines to be eligible for legal services (legal aid). You may be referred to a volunteer attorney program by the legal services office.
Another important tool for a parent whose child has been taken or hidden is the Federal Parent Locator Service (FPLS). An attorney must ask the court or county attorney to request FPLS assistance. The court or county attorney can apply to the FPLS for assistance in locating the missing parent. The FPLS is a computer search using the Social Security number of the missing parent to find home and work addresses for that parent. You must have the correct Social Security number in order to use the FPLS.
The mediator will also ask you and your spouse to bring in financial documents such as tax returns and bank and mortgage statements. As you progress, the mediator will summarize the information being assembled. If you agree that additional research is needed or a neutral expert is to be consulted, that will go on a “to do” list. This second stage of the mediation can span two or more sessions, especially if you need to do outside work to obtain additional information or appraisals. If you feel that you already know enough about your situation and have definite ideas on how to work out a settlement, you may find yourself impatient with this stage and anxious to move ahead with the negotiations. Even though you may want to rush on, the mediator’s job is to make sure that both you and your spouse have all the facts and information you need to negotiate an agreement that is legally binding and that you won’t regret having signed.
Some people think it will be easier and safer to have an attorney fight for their legal rights. Unfortunately, maximizing your legal rights often comes at someone else’s expense (for example your spouse or your children). This is referred to as a “win-lose” situation. All too often the transactional costs (both financial and emotional) of a “win” far exceed the value of the victory, especially for children. Although a good lawyer can be helpful, the adversarial legal process is expensive and often seeks to solve problems through opposing positions, and win-lose thinking. In my opinion, this adversarial approach is not only expensive and emotionally challenging; it is also detrimental to the long-term well-being of the people involved, especially the children. It may surprise you to know that most of my clients are unrepresented and successfully reach a complete mediated divorce settlement without retaining an attorney. My standard advice to people considering which divorce process to choose is to start with mediation and see how it goes. You may consult with or retain an attorney at any time and you never give up your right to go to court if mediation is partially or completely unsuccessful. With success rates as high as 80–90% and average savings of 20-50%, it seems the better question to ask may actually be, why wouldn’t you try mediation first?
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A divorce can get complicated if the parties have property (real estate, automobiles, vacation property, pensions, jewelry, etc.) or minor children. Usually, the divorce can be done more quickly if the spouses agree on how to divide the property and handle custody and parenting time with the children. Many cases start out with a lot of disputes, but then the parties are able to reach an agreement. Parties often reach agreement after using alternative dispute resolution (ADR) services outside of court. NOTE: If you feel threatened by or unsafe with the other party, you may want to get legal advice or help from an advocate before using ADR.