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Early Neutral Evaluation Pilot Programs Showing Great Promise in Minnesota

Minnesota is leading the nation in proving adversarial court proceedings are not always the best option for deciding the most contentious issues in a divorce. In fact, sometimes the best way to resolve emotionally taxing issues like child custody, parenting time and spousal support is by giving the divorcing couples the opportunity to resolve these issues themselves, and to do so early in the process. With a little help, of course.

In 2002, a new program known as “early neutral evaluation,” or “ENE” for short, was piloted in Hennepin County. The voluntary program provides a neutral forum for couples to meet in hopes of reaching a mutually agreeable settlement about their family law issues. During the ENE, each party is given an opportunity to present his or her side of the story before two neutral evaluators. The evaluators then give feedback to the parties about the likely outcome of their case if they are unable to reach a settlement and have to go to court.

Initially, the program dealt only with child custody and parenting time issues (known as “social early neutral evaluation” or “SENE”), but now ENEs also are available to discuss the financial aspects of a divorce, including division of assets and spousal maintenance (FENE).

The Hennepin County ENE pilot proved to be a great success, far exceeding the expectations set for it. From 2002 to 2008, the program successfully settled more than 70 percent of the over 2300 child custody and parenting time cases presented to neutral evaluators. Moreover, the ENE evaluations took an average of six hours to complete. In comparison, typical formal child custody evaluations can take as many as 45 hours to complete.

Based on the overwhelming success of the Hennepin County program, ENE programs were piloted in seven of the 10 judicial districts in Minnesota in 2007. The remaining three judicial districts, including the First Judicial District, began similar pilot programs in 2010. Together, these pilot programs are showing success rates nearing the 80 percent mark.

ENE programs are attractive to those looking for cost-effective, timely resolutions to their family law issues. In addition to high settlement rates, the program also provides a cheaper alternative and a quicker route to reaching a settlement than the traditional court process. For example, SENEs take an average of 14 hours per case with a final disposition in 30 days while FENEs take an average of 5.7 hours per case with a final disposition in 59 days. Litigated cases, on the other hand, can drag on for months costing thousands of dollars in legal fees and related costs — not to mention the emotional toll that extended conflict creates for divorcing couples and their families.

Early neutral evaluations also provide greater control to the parties over the final resolution of their dispute — something many may feel they are without when a judge is in charge of making all of the decisions.

However, ENEs are not appropriate for all cases. For example, if the parties are unwilling or unable to work together or already have made up their minds about how an issue should be decided, then ENE most likely is not best for them. Additionally, in cases involving domestic violence or other allegations of abuse, the court may be a more appropriate forum to decide custody and parenting time issues than ENEs.

For more information on early neutral evaluations and whether this process is the best option for your case, contact an experienced family law attorney today.