More and more Minnesota counties are providing divorce litigants with an opportunity to resolve their financial issues through a process known as “Financial Early Neutral Evaluation.” Settlement success rates in the FENE model are astonishing – as high as 75% in some jurisdictions.
An FENE involves a half-day session (or two, or three, or four) with a court-appointed neutral. This neutral typically is an experienced family law attorney, or a CPA familiar with the financial issues involved in a divorce. The parties, and their lawyers, sit down with the evaluator very early in the case – in an effort to catch people before they become too embroiled in conflict, or stuck in their position.
The process begins with the exchange of information, to ensure that there has been a full and fair disclosure of all income, assets and liabilities. A balance sheet is often created, which defines the universe of assets and debts, attributes value, provides a basis for the value, carves out any non-marital claims, and then allocates the relevant item to one of the parties. Once all allocated assets and debts are added up for each litigant, the cumulative value for each should be equal. This is typically the least controversial portion of the FENE, but can take some time.
The more controversial portion of the FENE involves the issue of spousal maintenance. With the assistance of the evaluator, the income and budgets of the parties will be scrutinized. A range of possible outcomes may be discussed, and recommendations may be made by the evaluator concerning the amount, and duration, of alimony in the event that the judge is left to decide the issue. Settlement discussions begin with that opinion as a backdrop.
Why does FENE work so often? A few points:
- The parties have direct conversation with one another, and the evaluator, in a natural way. A far cry from the robotic “question and answer” method of introducing evidence during a trial.
- The rules of evidence go out the window at an FENE. Any issue is up for discussion, empowering participants to voice their real-life concerns.
- Emotions may be taken into account at an FENE. Issues concerning “fairness” and “hurt” may be addressed as part of the process. Frankly, the law of “no-fault divorce” precludes alot of this in the courtroom.
- The process can be therapeutic. People feel like they can speak their mind, and they are listened to. Sometimes all a party needs is to be heard by someone.
- Spouses have to look each in the eye as they discuss the issues. Very different from sitting 25 feet apart in the courtroom, facing front.
- There is a real sense that the parties can “get it done” during the process. Litigants believe that closure has real value, and may be worth a compromise.
- The process is a respectful one. Most evaluators know how to keep tempers from flaring.
- The evaluators, not the lawyers, control the agenda. Both parties feel they are on a level playing field.
- Opinions matter. Litigants afford substantial weight to the perspective of the evaluators. They know the evaluator has no stake in the outcome, and the experience to back up their opinions.
- The neutrals are forced to “show their work.” What I mean is that the parties are literally walked through each of the elements of the case, together, and hear the same thing at the same time. They see how the opinions of the evaluator are created right before their eyes, giving them more credibility.
- The surroundings are comfortable. There are no robes, no gavels, no court reporters, and no security. Just people sitting around a table, with their favorite beverage, talking.
As time goes on, we suspect the FENE process will gain statewide acceptance. Most of the counties in the Twin Cities metro area have adopted such a program. Why wouldn’t they? With a 3/4 reduction in divorce litigation, everybody wins….except those lawyers whose practice model is based on “dog fight” mentality. But, who’s feeling sorry for them anyway?