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Does every contested divorce in Minnesota go to trial?

There are some divorces that are so complicated or so contentious that going to trial is the best course of action. A couple of years ago, for example, Frank and Jamie McCourt's divorce involved intricate business dealings -- over the ownership of the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team -- and a number of confusing post-nuptial promises and agreements. There were matters of law that were best left to a judge.

There are many couples, though, who prefer to spare themselves and their families -- especially children -- the pain and expense of a trial. These couples may opt for a form of alternative dispute resolution, like family mediation or early neutral evaluation.

In mediation, the couple sits down with a neutral third party, generally an attorney. The mediator can address one issues, like property division, or all issues the couple is dealing with. He or she listens to each spouse and looks for common ground. The objective of the session is to find solutions that are agreeable to both spouses.

Mediation is voluntary and is not binding. Sometimes a couple cannot find common ground, and the matter goes to court. Sometimes the couple reaches an agreement but one spouse has a change of heart. Again, the matter ends up in court.

About two-thirds of Minnesota counties have another program available: Early Neutral Evaluation. Like mediation, ENE is voluntary and confidential, and the process is used to resolve issues involving parenting time, custody and property division. Here, too, the objective is to minimize court involvement and, so, keep costs down.

On the outside, the process looks a lot like mediation. On the inside, though, there are important differences. We'll explain more in our next post.

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