Understanding the Social Early Neutral Evaluation process and how to properly prepare may assist parties in resolving their custody and parenting time issues at an early stage of the proceedings.
In Minnesota, the courts encourage resolution of custody and divorce cases through the use of alternate dispute resolution (ADR) methods these may include mediation, structured settlement conferences or Early Neutral Evaluations.
Early Neutral Evaluations may be used for social issues such as those related to custody and parenting time issues, or to financial issues. Where they seek to address custody and parenting time disputes, they are often called Social Early Neutral Evaluations (SENE).
The goal of the SENE is to seek an early resolution to the issues related to custody and parenting time. Over 70% of all cases are resolved in this process or a similar process. The key to success in an SENE is being carefully prepared.
What to Expect
1. First, the SENE lasts approximately 3 hours, though it may last up to 3-1/2 hours. Please plan to be available for the full time.
2. It is confidential, meaning, nothing stated in the SENE can be used in Court.
3. It is voluntary, which means you may terminate the session at any time.
4. There will usually be two evaluators, one male and one female. The evaluators will first go over the procedures, a SENE form may be signed indicating that you understand the process and, in some cases, the fee for the SENE is paid up front.
5. After the process is explained, and administrative tasks completed, each party will have about 20 minutes to tell the evaluators what they want for custody and parenting time and why you think that this is best for your children. They want to hear your story in your words and, as a result, your attorney's role is often minimal other than to keep you on track and/or to assist you in making sure your concerns are identified.
6. The parties will each have about 5 minutes to respond to what the other person has stated.
7. The evaluators will ask questions to clarify issues or get additional information.
8. After the process is complete, the parties will take a break while the evaluators meet privately to review what they have heard and then either: (a) the evaluators will let the parties know if they need more information and arrange to get it and meet again; or (b) let the parties know what they would recommend to the Court IF the case were going to trial and they had done an evaluation..
9. The parties and their counsel will then have an opportunity to consider the recommendation and discuss whether we wish to make offers of settlement. In most case, the parties meet privately with their attorneys and discuss settlement offers. Negotiations may occur in a conference room or with the evaluators moving from room to room shuttling offers back and forth.
How to Prepare
To prepare for the SENE, you must be organized. Keep in mind - the attorneys are treated like potted plants. We are there to remind you of issues or bring you back on point if you stray, but, generally, this is your chance to tell your story. This is how you prepare:
1. Describe your child. How would you describe your child's personality. This is a nice way to start your discussion about the kids. Are they shy or outgoing? What is their personality? Tell stories that help describe them.
2. Photos. Bring hard copies of photos showing your child and ideally you interacting with your child in different settings. If the child has a relationship with your family members, a couple photos in that regard would be nice. Photos that include your home to show it is appropriate may help. Bring only 5 or 6 hard copies.
3. Chronology of Care since Birth. Have a brief synopsis of who cared for the child since birth. What did the daily care look like when the parents were together. What was the care like when the parents were apart. Use warm stories of things you did with your child. Explain how parenting time changed as the child matured including times asked you or provide care or tried to interfere with your care. Specifics are important. If you can recall approximated dates and times, that can be critical.
4. Outline of Parenting Concerns. You may wish to start this discussion by first explaining how you believe both parents are important in the child's life. Even provide some good qualities of the other parent. Then, you may move on to any concerns you may have. It is important to write down and categorize your concerns regarding the custody and parenting issues so that you do not forget specific dates or events. Concerns may include who acted as the primary parent throughout the marriage, the stability of the children in the parental home, the desires of the children, the capacity of each parent to teach, supervise and guide the children. You may wish to start a draft of those talking points before the SENE. Again, having specifics can be important.
5. Supporting Documentation. Supporting documentation is also appropriate and helpful. This may include documents from medical providers and/or school conferences demonstrating which parent most often attended those meetings or appointments. If you have those documents or can acquire them prior to the SENE, it can make significant difference. This may also include police reports or criminal complaints where domestic abuse and /or criminal charges are involved. Communications between the parties can also be helpful. If your spouse has communicated inappropriately or, in some expressed a concern that their custody case is based on financial concerns, those communications should be printed off with copies ready to be provided. Organize those communications.
6. Work Schedule. Know your work schedule and what type of flexibility you may have to care for the children.
7. Proposed Schedule. You should have a schedule that you propose to follow.
Presenting at the SENE.
The Petitioner will usually present first. Have an outline of the points you wish to raise. I would sug
What if an Agreement is reached?
If an agreement is reached, the attorneys will cooperate with the evaluator and the Court to draft the necessary documents to make sure that the agreement is enforced.
What if no agreement is reached?
If the early neutral evaluation process is unsuccessful, then the matter will be returned to the Judge assigned to your case, who will set a discovery timeline and schedule the matter for pretrial and trial.
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