What to Expect in Divorce Court
Most people are not familiar with courtroom practices and procedures, making any court appearance stressful. And going to court for a divorce can be particularly nerve-racking. Your very personal information will likely be discussed in front of strangers, and a judge may make financial or parenting decisions that you do not agree with.
To help prepare for this process, this article explains the different types of court appearances you may be required to participate in during a divorce, as well as how to act in divorce court.
What Court Appearances Can I Expect in Divorce Court?
The number and types of court appearances that you can expect during your divorce will vary based on the issues in your case. Unless you and your spouse are in complete agreement quickly, prepare for as much as a year to pass between the date your case begins and the date of your final court appearance for trial or for the entry of agreed final orders.
Temporary Orders Hearing
You may have to appear in court for a temporary orders hearing. A temporary orders hearing often addresses financial issues, use of property (who stays in the home, who uses what car), parenting, and any other issues that need to be addressed prior to your divorce being finalized.
As the name implies, these orders are temporary and will be replaced at the end of your case with final orders. The temporary orders often become very sticky, however. Meaning, a poor result at the temporary orders hearing can cause problems later.
At most temporary orders hearings in Washington, the judge will hear the arguments from the lawyers about what the judge should decide. Generally, the side who requested the hearing will get to argue first. The lawyers do all the speaking, and they do not have a lot of time to present their arguments as the court typically has many other hearings to make decisions on. As a result, a good lawyer will have timely submitted professional, well-written and well-reasoned documents for the judge to read and consider before the hearing.
If you and your spouse agree on temporary orders, your attorney can usually present the agreed orders to the court for approval without a full hearing.
Following the entry of temporary orders, you may have one or more review hearings to address various issues that can arise throughout your case, to update the court on the progress of actions that were ordered (such as assessments), or to update the court on how the temporary orders are functioning for you and your spouse. The review hearing will likely be very similar to the hearing for temporary orders.
You may also have court appearances for hearings to address a spouse’s failure to follow orders or because circumstances have changed and temporary orders need to be modified to accommodate the new situation. The agenda for these types of hearings will be similar to those described above, but will be more focused on narrower issues.
Also, if an emergency situation arises (such as the need for a restraining order, a risk posed to a child, or a property crisis), you may be able to seek "ex parte" relief, which means a hearing with little or no notice to your spouse or advance scheduling with the court. Generally, if a judge issues you an ex parte order at this hearing, there will be a follow-up hearing so that your spouse has an opportunity to fully respond.
You may also have a brief court appearance to schedule your trial date. If you have an attorney, you will most likely not be required to appear at this scheduling date.
Prior to going to trial for your case, you may have a settlement conference with a judge. Generally, you and your spouse will submit your proposed resolution for your case and will meet with a judge (who is not your trial judge) to try to negotiate a resolution for all or part of your case.
Unlike hearings or a trial, a settlement conference is private and you will have more opportunity to speak yourself. If you come to an agreement in your settlement conference, or at another time, your final papers will need to be presented to the court for the judge’s approval and signature. The appearance to finalize your agreed orders is usually very brief (and you may not need to attend, depending on the specific court’s requirements).
Going to Trial
The majority of divorces are settled without a trial. However, if your case does go to trial, your court appearance will be much more involved. You will certainly want to be represented by a divorce attorney who is experienced in family law litigation.
In family law trials, the judge is the decision maker and there is no jury. You and your spouse will both have the opportunity to call and question witnesses. Oftentimes the family law judge will also ask questions to get a full picture of your circumstances.
You and your spouse will both be witnesses, and you may have experts in specific fields (accountants, parenting evaluators, doctors, etc.) or other general witnesses. The spouse who initially filed for divorce will have the opportunity to call his or her witnesses first. You will have the opportunity to submit and present evidence in addition to your witness testimony, and all of the rules of evidence apply in family law cases just as in other types of cases.
Your trial could last from half a day to a few weeks, depending on the issues. At the end of the trial, the judge will make a ruling. The attorneys will usually then prepare orders reflecting that ruling. There may be a presentation hearing where the attorneys present the orders they have prepared to the judge to confirm that they match the judge’s ruling and for the judge’s signature.
How to Act in Divorce Court
The courtroom is a formal place, and your judge will expect you to be respectful when you are there. This may seem old-fashioned to some, but remember it is the judge’s job to judge.
How to Dress
Generally, you should wear conservative-style clothing in good condition to the courtroom. Do not wear a hat. You do not need to wear a suit or very formal clothes, but avoid jeans, t-shirts and other very casual clothing. If necessary, discuss your clothing options with your attorney before going to court.
How to Behave
More important than your clothes will be your conduct. You should treat the judge, the courtroom staff, your spouse, and the opposing attorney respectfully. You will be expected to stand when the judge enters or leaves the courtroom.
When speaking, try to stay on topic and remain as calm and rational as possible. Judges generally do not appreciate when a party tries to speak over their opposing party or the judge rather than waiting for their opportunity to speak. Judges also do not generally appreciate a sarcastic tone, an angry tone, or outbursts.
If you accidentally do something that the judge informs you that you shouldn’t have done, apologize to the judge and move on.
Follow your attorney’s advice
Your attorney should prepare you for your court appearances. Your attorney is your best resource for determining what is and is not appropriate in the courtroom and it will be to your best advantage to listen to his or her advice.
Please be advised that family law cases can be very complex and are different for everyone, based on unique circumstances. The information provided here should not be construed as legal advice in your case.
McKinley Irvin proudly serves Washington State and Oregon with offices in Seattle, Bellevue, Tacoma, Puyallup, Vancouver and Portland. Contact our family law offices to set up an appointment with a McKinley Irvin family attorney.