What to Expect in Minnesota Divorce Court: The Social Early Neutral Evaluation (“SENE”)

A social early neutral evaluation is a process whereby the parties engage in a brief presentation of their case as to custody and parenting time with one or more neutrals and their attorneys present, to attempt to achieve settlement early on. The goal is to prevent prolonged litigation that often results in more difficult co-parenting and makes settlement harder and more expensive.

Your “team” for SENE will generally consist of one man and one woman, one of whom is an attorney and the other is someone who works in the mental health field (social worker, psychologist, etc.). However, this is not always the case and can vary by county. They will ask that you present information for them to make recommendations about custody and parenting time. Each of these individuals is experienced in divorce law and how judges generally view facts and make determinations, so that their recommendations will have weight as to a likely outcome at trial if you don’t settle.

You will need to be prepared to speak about the following at the SENE session:

  1. A general history of your relationship, including what parenting responsibilities looked like while you were together and since separation;
  2. Any specific concerns about co-parenting (this can include concerns about substance use, facilitating parenting time between you, choices the other party has made during time with the kids that you see as problematic, communication problems, etc.);
  3. Any specific concerns about how the children are doing or what they need to help them through this;
  4. A detailed explanation of what you want to see ordered in terms of
    1. Legal custody – who should make major life decisions for the kids, especially around medical care, religious upbringing, and education
    2. Physical custody – who should the children live with primarily and
    3. Parenting time – when should they be in each location, and how will it work logistically to get them where they need to be, coordinate things, etc.
  • In that proposal, make sure to include the “WHAT” and the “WHY” – what you want and why that is right for the children’s best interests and development.

Remember that the evaluators are concerned about what the kids need and what is fair for them, not what is equal or what you want. For example, if you have a baby, you might want equal time, but it might not be appropriate yet developmentally. Keep your presentation focused on the kids.

In all this, you have to present your own case. Your attorney is there to help prompt you, but you really present the story. It is permissible to have notes. You will have time to rebut what the other party says, so keep your own presentation focused on what you want to convey. What you have prepared is important, in and of itself. One of the best ways to make points is to give an example or tell a story that demonstrates the point. This is more persuasive and memorable.

When presentations are done, the evaluators will make recommendations and then work with you and your attorneys to see if agreements can be reached. If you reach an agreement, it will be put into writing, and when signed by everyone it becomes binding. If agreement is not reached, the entire process is confidential, and you will move on to the next steps in your case.

Contact Mary B. Rannells Rowan at (952) 746-2180 or [email protected] if you need an attorney for your family law matter.