For many people facing a divorce issue in the courts, it may be their first time ever having to deal with the court system, outside of perhaps showing up for jury duty a couple times a decade. And if you have never been through a family law litigation before, you may have no idea what is waiting for you at the courtroom.
While you may think “litigation” is a strong word for what you and your spouse are engaged in, if you and your spouse are going to court to have a judge resolve an issue, then litigation is exactly what you are doing. There are only four ways for a divorce proceeding to play out once a petition is filed: 1) the parties decide to stay married and withdraw the petition; 2) one of the parties dies, ending the marriage; 3) you reach a settlement outside of court, such as through mediation; or 4) you litigate the case until the end and a judge decides the contested issues.
Thus, assuming neither of the first two scenarios occur, if you cannot reach a settlement, then you will need to go before a judge in a contested trial, which may be preceded by a number of contested hearings. And, to be clear, many settlements only occur after several contested hearings take place and the parties decide to finally settle through negotiation, mediation, or some other means.
Which brings us back to the question, then, of what you might expect at a contested divorce hearing. The court systems are different in every county and state, and, for the purposes of this blog, we will take a look at the Los Angeles County family court system, but there are no doubt similarities in most family courts.
You will most likely be required to show up early in the morning, 8:30 AM in LA County. You’ll need to find parking, go through a metal detector, and find your courtroom by that time. If you are there for a hearing, you might be expecting a judge and bailiff waiting for your arrival and at your service, but what you will actually find is a posted list of anywhere from 10 to 20 other cases also scheduled for that time. You and/or your lawyer will check in with the clerk, giving them the number assigned to your case.
Because there may be 10 to 20 other hearings scheduled for the same time as your hearing, it could be hours before the judge calls your case up to be heard (hours you may be paying your attorney to be there and wait with you, even during lunch). When you are heard, the judge may provide only a few minutes to each side to make their case beyond what was written in the filed papers leading up to the hearing. The judge may send you and your spouse along with your attorneys out to the hallway to negotiate, or even to a “daily settlement officer” at the courthouse whose job it is to help you reach an agreement. In that case, it could be several more hours until you come back before the judge.
The judge is there to be impartial and to help resolve disputes, but, the fact of the matter is that while the outcome of the hearing could well be the most important thing in your life at that moment, the judge will have seen many other cases just that same morning (not to mention week, month, and year) and will only be able to provide a fraction of his or her attention that day to understanding everything he or she needs to know to make a fair ruling in your matter. You simply will not have the time to tell the judge everything you want them to know, and you will have to hope what the judge needs to know is well-stated in your filings and that the judge has fully comprehended it and kept it in mind. And, of course, the attorney for your spouse may well be telling the judge the exact opposite of what you are saying, whether accurately or not, and it will be up to the judge in that brief amount of time to determine who is telling the truth.
All to say, litigating a divorce in court is sometimes the only way to achieve the result you deserve, but family courts are an imperfect system, and, if you can achieve a positive result in your divorce through negotiation and/or mediation outside of court, you will want to explore that option as well as you can.
Mediation, for example, does allow both parties to speak at length about their concerns and positions to a skilled family law professional who can guide the parties towards a mutually beneficial resolution. Rather than having to wait weeks or months for a court hearing, at which you will then possibly need to devote a whole day (and a whole day of paying your attorney to be there) to having a matter of minutes before a judge who will then issue a ruling (or potentially advise you to mediate), you, your spouse, your attorneys, and the mediator can work in a more informal and open environment to craft a positive outcome. Mediation may not work for every dispute, but it is an option that should be explored whenever possible in consideration of the alternative of going to court.
Guidance on Your California Mediation Questions From a Westlake Village Family Law Mediator
If you would like to learn more about how our office can provide guidance on mediation or any other California family law issues you are facing in Ventura County or Los Angeles County, contact the Zonder Family Law Group office today at (805) 777-7740 or (818) 877-0001, or schedule your strategy session using easy-to-use online form here.