Alternative Dispute Resolution in Family Court
What are SENE, FENE and Mediation?
Minnesota family courts encourage Alternative Dispute Resolution or ADR. Allowing parties the opportunity to resolve matters by talking with each other is important, as no one knows your family and what is best for your family and children better than you do.
Often at the Initial Case Management Conference (ICMC), the judicial officer will encourage some form of alternative dispute resolution. The three types of ADR most commonly employed in Minnesota family courts are: (1) Social Early Neutral Evaluation (SENE); (2) Financial Early Neutral Evaluation (FENE); and, (3) Mediation. Here is a brief breakdown of what each method of ADR entails.
Social Early Neutral Evaluation
A Social Early Neutral Evaluation (SENE) is a confidential evaluative process used to try and resolve custody and parenting time conflicts in family law cases. A SENE can only be ordered by the Court, and will only be ordered if the parties agree. It is a voluntary process.
A SENE typically involves both a male and a female who are experienced professional evaluators. The evaluators may have different professional designations, but they are trained on the SENE process. The parties will present their preferences for custody and parenting time to the evaluators, indicating why they believe what they propose is best for the child(ren). The evaluators will then provide a neutral opinion based on their experience as to the likelihood that each parent’s preferences would be recommended by an independent custody and parenting time evaluation if one were to be performed. The recommendations and feedback from the evaluators, and any proposals made by either party are confidential and may not be communicated to the Court. If the parties do not reach an agreement, the Court simply hears that no agreements were reached. If parties do come to some agreements or a full agreement, a summary of the agreement will be relayed to the Court by the evaluators so that it can be finalized into a Court order or judgment.
A SENE is typically scheduled to last for 3 hours and fees can vary by county, however they are typically based on a sliding fee scale determined by the party’s income to insure the affordability of the program.
Financial Early Neutral Evaluation
A Financial Early Neutral Evaluation (FENE) is a confidential process used to try and resolve financial issues in a family matter, such as asset and debt division, spousal maintenance and/or child support. A FENE can be ordered by the Court upon the agreement of both parties, as it is also a voluntary process.
A FENE typically involves an experienced attorney, accountant or finance professional who serves as the neutral evaluator. The parties will present their respective point of view regarding financial issues to the evaluator. A FENE generally requires some financial information, with supporting source documents provided to the evaluator prior to the evaluation session. At the FENE, the evaluator will provide feedback about the parties’ case and help the parties to explore possible settlements. That feedback can include an opinion regarding how likely it is that the judge would order what each party wants if the case were to go to trial. The recommendations of the evaluator and proposals made by the parties in an effort to settle are confidential and cannot be shared with the Court.
The FENE is typically scheduled for 3 hours and fees can vary by County, but are often one half of the hourly rate that each party is being charged by his or her attorney.
Mediation is perhaps the most commonly used method of Alternative Dispute Resolution in family court. Many parties and attorneys favor mediation because mediation can include both custody and parenting time issues, and financial issues. A mediator helps to facilitate conversation between parties as a neutral third party, in an effort to assist the parties in coming to a resolution on the any or all of the issues in the case before continuing litigation and possibly going to trial before a judge. Unlike the FENE and SENE evaluators, Mediators generally do not offer evaluative feedback on the parties’ positions, although they can if asked by both parties to do so, in which case the process is called “evaluative mediation”.
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