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Timeline of a Divorce: Your Roadmap to a New Beginning

By Anthony E. Toepfer
Reichert Wenner, P.A.

Timeline of a Divorce:  Your Roadmap to a New Beginning
Let’s face it – divorce is scary.  For a person getting divorced, several major life changes are happening all at the same time, and probably not in the way they expected them to happen.  Your family dynamic is changing, you might be moving, and you might be experiencing a significant change in household income.  All of these things are extremely stressful.

The biggest stress of all, though, stems from the fear of the unknown.  This article aims to reduce that fear for people contemplating divorce by providing a broad overview of the process.  There are a lot of misconceptions about divorce spread by TV shows and movies that may rely on outdated information.  What follows is a roadmap of what you can actually expect from start to finish.

I.  The Summons and Petition (…or Answer and Counter-Petition)
Every divorce in the state of Minnesota starts with two documents: a Summons and a Petition.  The drafting party is referred to as “the Petitioner” and the recipient is “the Respondent.”  The Petitioner will have these documents served on the Respondent, which will start the divorce process.  These documents are drafted by either the person seeking the divorce, or, preferably, their attorney. 

The first document, the Summons, contains what can be a lot of scary language.  It informs the person receiving it that they are now a party to a law suit, that they have a limited amount of time in which to provide a formal response to the Petition, and that failure to do so may result in “default.”  It also spells out a number of things that the recipient is no longer allowed to do until the divorce is completed.  They are ordered not to make changes to any insurance policies, not to dispose of assets (with some exceptions), and not to harass the other party to the suit.  In short, the recipient may immediately feel backed into a corner by reading a document the content of which is prescribed by law.

The second document, the Petition, serves two purposes.  First, it lays out the facts of the case as best as the party drafting the documents is able.  This includes the names and addresses of both parties, birthdays, the date of the marriage, date of separation, whether there are any minor children and their birthdays, and a host of other relevant information.  Second, it spells out what the party seeking divorce is asking the court to grant them in terms of asset division, as well as child custody, child support, and spousal maintenance (where appropriate). 

Attorneys have many varying styles as to how they draft the second part of their Petition.  Some will advise their clients to “shoot for the moon” and ask for everything in case the other party never responds.  If a party does not respond to a petition, the Petitioner may ask the court to hold a “default” hearing. If the other party does not attend the default hearing, the Court may award the Petitioner everything they asked for in their Petition.  Realistically, this rarely happens, and shooting for the moon in a petition typically only serves to scare or anger the other party.  The better approach, typically, is to either list your starting negotiation points or your actual desires in the petition.  Starting from a reasonable position greatly increases the likelihood of settlement down the road.

II.  Initial Case Management Conference or Scheduling Conference
Once a party has been served the Summons and Petition, the case may take one of two paths.  If the parties elect to try and settle things outside the court system, they may negotiate at their own pace and in the manner they see fit until they reach resolution (or until it becomes clear they won’t).  If the parties manage to settle everything on their own, they or their attorneys will draft paperwork that spells out the terms of the settlement and finalizes the divorce.  All of this will then be submitted to the court for a judge’s signature.

If the parties do not reach a settlement, or if one party feels the need to ask for immediate help from the court (for example, if a party needs temporary child support during the divorce process), the parties may file their case with the court and will then follow a somewhat more rigid timeline.  The remainder of this article follows that timeline and process, the first step of which is an Initial Case Management Conference (ICMC) or a Scheduling Conference, depending on what county you live in (and sometimes which judge you are assigned).

The more favored approach in Minnesota is the ICMC.  At the ICMC, the parties, their attorneys, and the judge meet at the court house to discuss the basic facts of the case, what if anything is in dispute, and discuss various potential methods for resolving any disputes.  The judge will provide the parties a general overview of the case process, will work with the attorneys to decide on a timeline for the case, and will recommend appropriate alternative dispute resolution methods (which may include Social or Financial Early Neutral Evaluations, processes which are more appropriately discussed in another article) in an attempt to keep the parties from going to trial.  Trial avoidance is almost always in the best interest of everyone involved in a divorce.  Parties that had a hand in crafting the actual outcome of their cases have shown to be substantially happier than those whose cases were determined by a judge.

If your county, or your judge, does not utilize the ICMC process, the parties and their attorneys will be asked to attend a scheduling conference to set specific deadlines for discovery, alternative dispute resolution, a pre-trial hearing date, and a trial date.  Most commonly, the attorneys will simply discuss between themselves what these dates should be ahead of time, and they will submit a schedule to the court to avoid the time and expense of the actual hearing.

III. Discovery
After the ICMC or Scheduling Conference, the parties will engage in a process known as “discovery.”  This is essentially a legal term of art for the exchange of information.  Whether the process proceeds formally (with signed written requests and strict deadlines) or informally, the result is the same: the parties will trade documentation of values of assets, bank accounts, retirement accounts, real estate, and everything else they own so their attorneys can build a full financial picture of the marriage to prepare for negotiating how all of it will be divided.  If children are involved, this process might also dive into the mental health and behaviors of the parents so that the attorneys are prepared to properly discuss appropriate parenting time arrangements.

IV.  Negotiation
Once all the parties have the information they need to make informed decisions, they will attempt to negotiate a settlement.  Minnesota does not require that everything acquired during a marriage be divided equally, just that it be divided eq         uitably, or fairly.  While this makes things a little more complicated, it gives the parties far more leeway to reach a decision that works for their unique situation.  If the parties cannot come to an agreement on their own, the courts generally will require them to seek the help of a third party neutral and go through one of a number of different resolution processes.  Mediation is the most commonly selected of these processes.  In mediation, a third party unrelated to the case acts as sort of a deal broker, working with both sides to come to a mutually agreed solution to the problem.   The vast majority of divorces settle following mediation.  In a select few cases, however, the parties cannot agree on everything and proceed to trial.

V. Trial
If no settlement is reached, the parties will go before a judge to present facts and evidence supporting their side of the case, and the judge will determine the final outcome.  A trial may or may not cover all aspects of a divorce; if the parties reached agreement on some or most of the issues, they may elect to only have the judge decide on those where they are not yet in agreement.  In a divorce case, a trial is typically no longer than a day, though particularly complicated cases may be longer.  Trial should always be a last resort, as it is the only step that completely removes control in the decision making process away from the parties. 

VI.  Conclusion
There are many things that can occur in the middle of this process which we have not discussed, but the above reasonably depicts what you can expect to see during the process of a marital dissolution (divorce).  The timeline can be extremely quick.  Some cases conclude in as little as a couple of weeks.  Most commonly, however, the process takes between six and twelve months.  In some extreme cases, it can take multiple years, but these types of cases are few and far between. 

If you are seeking divorce, you should contact an attorney.  The process is complex, and without competent legal representation you may end up making decisions that could adversely affect your life for a long time.  At Reichert Wenner, P.A., the attorneys practicing family law are highly experienced in reaching resolution efficiently and ensuring their clients make it through the divorce process as whole as possible, both financially and emotionally.  Call (320) 252-7600 to schedule a consultation, or email info@reichertwennerlaw.com.