Divorce and Custody Processes

The Typical Divorce and Custody Processes in Minnesota

From Alexandra’s interview for the Masters of Family Law series on

In Minnesota, the spouses in a divorce or the parents in a custody establishment case each look forward to the end of the process when the final papers that are entered into the court record, which are known as the “Findings of Fact, Conclusions of Law, Order for Judgment, and Judgment and Decree,” or even just a “Decree.” These spouses and parents, which are referred to as “the parties,” must understand the process that leads to the entry of a decree.

From Cassie’s interview for the Masters of Family Law series on

There are many steps that must take place before the case is finalized, and they can vary greatly depending on the parties’ circumstances. A general overview of the typical court process in Minnesota is given here to help you understand the common steps involved, but it is strongly recommended that you seek our legal guidance as each parties’ facts require individual legal analysis.

Strategy Session

It is essential that we start with our client and their attorney and paralegal from Atticus Family Law meeting to clearly identify all of the client’s objectives. We do this by discussing the facts, the other people involved such as the other party and children, and identifying the problems. We discuss options and identify a plan to best accomplish those objectives. Only after we have a plan do we initiate the, or respond to, divorce or custody pleadings.

Commencing a Case for Divorce or Custody Establishment

The process officially begins when one party has a Summons and a Petition be given to the other party. The person who initiates this process is called the Petitioner. The Petition states the facts and “pleads” what the Petitioner wants, which includes the applicable concerns for custody, parenting time, child support, assets, debts, spousal maintenance, et cetera. The other party, known as the Respondent, has 30 days to provide an Answer & Counter-Petition stating what they agree with, what they don’t agree with, and “pleads” what they want instead.

Minnesota does not have any requirement that married couples or parents be separated, either unofficially or legally, before a divorce can be granted or custody established. However, the law does require that at least one of the parties have been a resident of Minnesota for at least 180 days (6 months) before you can begin a court proceeding.

Initial Case Management Conference

Within a few weeks of filing the pleadings for divorce or custody establishment, there will be a first hearing with a judge. At this hearing, the judge, the parties, and their attorneys will hold a short discussion to introduce the judge, identify the disagreed upon issues to be resolved, and determine whether there are concerns that need sorting while the case is pending (i.e. temporary support, exclusive use of the house, parenting access). Otherwise, the court will offer the parties the opportunity to participate in any alternative dispute resolution (ADR) programs the court furnishes.

Discovering & Exchanging Information

In order to reach any agreements, all information relevant to the issues needs to be known; inevitably there is information and documents that one spouse has access to that the other does not. Colloquially we refer to this as “discovery.” The discovery requests and responses can be formally asserted in a legal document with answers sworn to under oath or it can be informally communicated & answered via letters and email.

Further discovery can be in-depth where we use 3rd parties to do appraisals, business valuations, forensic accounting, income assessments, evaluations for alcohol or drug use, psychological evaluations, and/or custody evaluations.

Temporary Relief Hearing

In some cases, particularly if there are children involved, certain matters must be addressed early in the process. Minor children cannot wait several months to be told where they will sleep each night, for example. In these cases, a temporary relief hearing may be held to decide on how certain time-sensitive matters will be handled while the case is in progress. These matters include custody and parenting time, child support, spousal maintenance, attorneys’ fees, exclusive use of the homestead, assignment of expense payments, and other court orders that will facilitate the just and speedy disposition of the proceeding or will protect the parties or their children from physical or emotional harm.

A temporary relief hearing may be requested once the summons and petition have been served. By working with a skilled attorney from the beginning of your case, you will be able to quickly take precautions to protect your financial future and your family’s well-being as the case proceeds.

Mediation & Early Neutral Evaluation

All Minnesota courts require that both parties in a contested family law matter first try to reach a settlement outside of court, through a process called alternative dispute resolution (ADR). There are several forms of ADR, with the most common being mediation and early neutral evaluations. During these processes, both parties will meet with 1-2 mediators/evaluators, also called neutrals, who will attempt to help each side resolve their differences and reach an agreement on their own. No neutral can force you to accept terms, and you have the right to stop the ADR process without reaching an agreement if you so choose.

ADR is a great option for clients as it allows each side to have their concerns addressed while remaining in control of the outcome. But that doesn’t mean that you won’t have to smartly navigate the process to get what you want – it will help greatly to have a dedicated and experienced attorney on your side. A knowledgeable family law attorney will not simply make demands on your behalf, they will use well-researched evidence and facts to build a strong argument for how and why the matters in your case should be resolved. This is one of the many reasons why choosing the right attorney to represent your interests is so important.

Pretrial Hearing

A few months after the ICMC the court will hold a Pretrial Hearing. Often the courts expect the parties to use that morning or afternoon to continue to discuss and negotiate the issues to reach further agreements. If a full agreement is reached it can be submitted verbally on the record to finish the contested portion of the process. If not, the judge at the pretrial hearing will issue an order setting forth the issues for trial, the length of the trial, the deadlines for trial exhibit & witness lists to be filed, and the timelines for pretrial motions. The court may also order the parties to participate in a moderated settlement conference as an additional ADR measure.

Final Trial

If all attempts at reaching an agreement fail, then your divorce or child custody case will have to be decided by a judge at trial.

Successfully presenting a case at trial requires a great deal of preparation and knowledge of trial proceedings. Some attorneys prefer not to focus on cases that go to trial and may have limited experience in this area. The attorneys of Atticus Family Law have extensive trial experience, having trained at the nation’s top trial advocacy programs. If a trial becomes necessary, our firm is prepared to identify and prepare relevant witnesses, present the evidence needed to support your claims, and even anticipate potential actions by opposing counsel.


After a decree has been issued by the court, either because the parties reached a full agreement or there was a trial, the terms of the decree must be implemented. Many of these needs, especially in divorces, such as executing and exchanging car titles, dividing and closing bank accounts, and divvying personal property and household goods are done without the involvement of attorneys.

The attorneys are involved in other implementations, the ones that require legal knowledge and experience. These include updating the real estate titles, drafting & coordinating the post-decree court order that tells the retirement administrators how to divide the pensions & IRAs, and drafting & coordinating the post-decree court order for the appointment of a parenting consultant.

Checkout Session

Once the attorney implementation work is done, our client will meet for a last time with their attorney. The purpose of a checkout is to make sure the client has a full understanding of their decree, they know best practices and hacks for managing their relationship with their ex, they anticipate what changes are going to be needed to support and parenting time as incomes and circumstances change in the years to come, they know post-representation questions will be answered without charge, and otherwise close their case.

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