Divorce is never easy.  In the past, that was particularly the case, and looking back, it certainly wasn’t the ‘good old days’.  Then, parties very quickly ratcheted things up to an all-out war.  Today, divorce still remains a process filled with pain and emotion.  Yet, with a process in Northeastern Minnesota’s Sixth Judicial District (St. Louis, Carlton, Lake and Cook Counties) known as Early Neutral Evaluation (ENE),  it’s a little less painful.

ENE is a type of mediation opportunity that is offered to parties in a divorce.  In the earliest stage of the process, at what is known as the Initial Case Management Conference (“ICMC”), the Court asks parties whether they would like to try ENE.  In my experience, I’ve found approximately ninety percent (90%) choosing the ENE process settle short of trial.

ENE’s difference from mediation is in the name – “evaluation”.  The Evaluators, while helping parties toward a settlement, along the way provide the important service of evaluation.  Evaluators listen to parties, usually in separate rooms.  Then, if asked, they will give their evaluative opinion on each side’s case, strengths and weaknesses.  Important to this process, parties come to understand a couple important things.  First, a neutral party (not their advocate attorney) helps point out that while an individual might feel they have the ‘superior’ side in a divorce, they might have some weaknesses in their position.  Also, it’s made clear that if they can come to a settlement (which often means neither sides gets everything they wanted), it is better than throwing your total fate and future into the hands of a judge, who might only have several hours involvement in the case.

There can be two subparts to ENE: Social Early Neutral Evaluation (“SENE”) and Financial Early Neutral Evaluation (“FENE”).  The SENE is for divorces where minor children are involved.  In an SENE, there are two evaluators – one must be a male and one a female.  In the Sixth District, there is a panel list of evaluators to choose from.  Most attorneys who handle divorces know particular evaluator’s styles.  SENEs handle the most important matters of custody (physical custody and legal custody) and parenting time.  FENE, as the name sounds, handles the financials and only involves one evaluator.  Typical FENE subjects are division of marital property, addressing non-marital property claims, and spousal maintenance.

In the ENE process, parties generally split the cost of paying the evaluator(s).  The ENE day is best started early, often 8:30 a.m.  If the divorce involves minor children and financials, an ENE day can go the full 8+ hours.  Agreeing in the ENE to a Stipulated Agreement is voluntary.  Either party can walk away, deciding not to settle.

In the early start of the divorce process, each party will be required to fill out and file an Initial Case Management Data Sheet.  This Data Sheet includes information on the parties’ financials and family background, such as ages of children.  It also asks whether the parties have already agreed on certain matters.

You may have read this article because you, yourself are heading for or at the start of a divorce.  If so, you may be nervous, anxious and scared. These are not uncommon feelings.  Yet, be assured, as tough as it may seem, you will get through this.  As dark as things may seem, there will be brighter days.

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