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"Breaking Up" is Getting Harder to Do

Posted: Friday, May 29, 2009

Back in 1962, Neil Sedaka's hit song reminded couples that "Breaking Up is Hard to Do."  Nearly fifty years later, it has become even harder. 

The long-lasting economic recession has led to more couples facing tougher choices during divorces, including owing more than their homes are worth or suffering from high credit card debt.   Add to the mix budget cuts that were absorbed by the Courts even before the current legislative session, and the result has been an increase in high conflict cases lingering on court dockets for months longer than usual.

Recently, more than 20 of the state's best family law attorneys volunteered to help settle some of these difficult cases in the Family Court division of the Fourth Judicial District, which encompasses Hennepin County.   The attorneys met in three hour sessions with divorcing parties and their lawyers, as part of a Moderated Settlement Conference Program.  Family Court judges referred cases to the program, but it was up to the divorcing parties to decide if they wanted to participate at no cost to them. 

The concept proved to be very popular and the program filled to capacity.  "When there's plenty of money cases are easy to settle," says Andrea Niemi, one of the attorneys who served as a settlement moderator.  "When there's no money things become much more difficult."  Niemi notes that instead of talking about how to divide assets, an increased number of couples must figure out how to divide up debt when they sell homes with mortgage balances that exceed their equity. 

As part of the program, a Family Court judge is standing by, available to put a settlement on the record immediately, should one be reached.  So far the program has worked wonderfully.   Eighty percent of the 36 cases heard over three days settled that very day, while most of the rest continue working toward settlement.

This program, and the response to it, provides yet another indicator of how the economic downturn is straining families.  Nearly every category of new case filings in Family Court increased during the first quarter of 2009.  The Family Court Self-Help Center hit an all-time record high of 1,600 citizens served in April.  Unfortunately, this wave of new cases comes at a time when budget cuts have stretched Court resources to a near breaking point. 

For instance, referrals to the Hennepin County Family Court Services division that helps parents resolve visitation and custody disputes are at the highest level in seven years, but the division has six fewer employees now than it did seven years ago. The inevitable result is that families remain in limbo for longer.

The American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers-Minnesota Chapter, and member Martin Swaden, deserve considerable credit for coming up with the Settlement Program idea.  They've since expanded the program to other cities, and while no additional sessions are currently scheduled here, they are contemplating holding more.  

"By the time family members decide to seek relief from the court, they are usually in crisis. Children and parents need prompt assistance.  Without the generosity of volunteer attorneys, many cases would be delayed.  We have 14 judicial officers to decide 10,000 family cases filed each year in this County," remarked Tanja Manrique, presiding Judge of Family Court.  In addition to the recent Settlement Program, Judge Manrique notes that dozens of attorneys donate their time or offer reduced rates for on-going programs including Financial Early Neutral Evaluations, in-house settlement conferences, unbundled legal services and a new Spanish language settlement calendar.

During a historically difficult economic time, these attorneys are demonstrating how the private and public sector can work together to help people get their lives back on track.