The legal process is often confusing. You are most likely wondering, "What happens now that I have hired my Attorney?"
Initial Filing: Our office will prepare your paperwork for you. Your Petition, (if you are initiating the dissolution of marriage/legal separation) or your Response to the Petition (if your spouse initiated the dissolution of marriage/legal separation), will be completely prepared with all necessary forms. You will be contacted by one of our staff members when the forms are ready for your review and signature. We will have your documents filed with the Court.
Do You Have Any Immediate Concerns? / Do You Need Temporary Orders?: Your Attorney will discuss the most immediate issues in your case which need to be resolved, e.g.: child custody/visitation, child support, spousal support, disposition of the family residence, or any other temporary orders that must be addressed at the very beginning of your case. Your Attorney may file a "motion" to obtain a Court date in the event that you and your spouse are unable to reach an agreement on the issues in dispute.
Negotiations: Your Attorney will attempt to resolve the issues raised in a motion with the opposing counsel (or the opposing party if he/she is unrepresented) prior to the scheduled court hearing date. Your Attorney will negotiate on your behalf until a reasonable offer is attained. Your Attorney will always relay all reasonable settlement offers to you. You and you alone can accept or reject an offer.
4-Way Meeting: This is a meeting in which both parties meet in the conference room of either attorney's office to informally discuss the issues and conflict resolution options. You and your Attorney can decide whether a 4-Way meeting would be a beneficial use of time and effective means of solving the problems that you are facing.
Hearing: If you are unable to reach an agreement with your spouse, you and your Attorney will attend a court hearing. The court can only make decisions regarding the issues that were raised in the motion. One of our staff members will contact you prior to the hearing in order to provide you with all of the necessary information for the day of court.
Remember... ON THE DAY OF COURT:
ALWAYS plan on getting to court early.
ALWAYS dress appropriately for court.
NEVER bring people who will act inappropriately or whose mere presence may cause problems for the opposing party.
Hearings are held whenever there are specific issues which need to be resolved. A hearing is limited to 20 minutes in duration. Therefore, the issues raised must be narrowed down and specific in nature. Hearings are the most common method for resolving Family Law disputes pending the final dissolution.
Long Cause Hearings are scheduled when an issue is too complicated for the Court to resolve in 20 minutes or less. Your Attorney will discuss with you whether a long cause hearing will be necessary on a given issue in your case.
Trials generally occur only at the very end of your case to resolve all of the remaining issues upon which you and your spouse were unable to agree, such as the final division of your property and permanent support. It is important to note that, traditionally, less than 5% of all Family Law matters actually proceed to trial.
Permanent Issues / Marital Settlement Agreement or Final Judgment: The finish line for your dissolution is resolution on all of the issues in your case. An agreement on all issues regarding your children (if applicable), your financial support, and the division of your property can be embodied in a Marital Settlement Agreement (MSA) or Stipulated Judgment that either your Attorney or opposing counsel can prepare for your signatures. The MSA would be incorporated into a Final Judgment.
If you and your spouse are unable to reach an agreement on all of the issues a Court will decide the remaining issues at trial and its decision will constitute your Final Judgment.
In either scenario, your dissolution of marriage will be final. Thereafter, you may only request the court to make changes to your permanent agreement if there are substantial changes regarding child custody/visitation or child support that are significant enough to warrant the court to review your new dispute. This is unlike the temporary orders which may be reviewed by the court at any time if circumstances warrant a change.
You may come to a Final Judgment as early in the case as you wish, provided you and your spouse are in agreement. Under California Law, there is a mandatory six(6) month waiting period to have your marital status terminated. This means that you must remain married until six months and 1 day after the responding party was served with the Petition for Dissolution of Marriage. If you and your spouse are able to reach agreements on all issues within the six month waiting period, a Final Judgment can be prepared and filed with the court with your marital status being terminated on the first date possible following the mandatory period.
What If My Case Must Go To Trial?: If you are unable to reach an agreement on ALL issues, your case will proceed to trial. Your Attorney will appear at a Status Conference on your behalf. Your Attorney may then schedule a Settlement Conference and Trial if it does not appear that settlement will be possible in your case without assistance of the Court.
- Status Conference - Your Attorney will appear at Court without you to advise the Court on the status of settlement discussions and/or schedule the Settlement Conference and Trial dates.
- Settlement Conference - You and your Attorney appear at Court with the other party and his or her Attorney. The judge will discuss the remaining issues in dispute with the Attorneys and assist them in reaching a final settlement on all matters. The judge generally does not hear directly from the parties at a settlement conference. Generally the parties and counsel meet together in the hallway outside the courtroom or in a conference room at the court and attempt to resolve all issues at the Settlement Conference.
- Trial - You and your Attorney appear at Court where the Judge may once again encourage the parties to participate in settlement discussions. If you and your spouse are still unable to reach an agreement on all issues, the Court will commence the trial. Trial can last anywhere from a few hours to a few days. Lay and/or expert witnesses may be called to testify. You and your spouse are both likely to testify and be subject to cross examination. At the conclusion of the trial, the Court will decide each issue and render a final judgment.
The goal of the Family Law system is to have the parties reach agreements, otherwise known as settlement. The legal system recognizes that this area of the law involves the most personal aspects of your life, including your family and your finances. A judge is an impartial third party who can make these decisions if it is impossible to reach an agreement, but no one knows the details about your life better than you.
Attorneys, mediators, and possibly other counselors are going to assist you in reaching agreements. Our hope at Family Law Group, LLP, is that we can provide legal advice combined with compassion and care for your family, that will guide you to the best possible outcome in the face of difficult decisions. The best people to make the decisions on when your child will be with each parent, how the parties will be able to afford two households, and/or the manner in which the property that was acquired during your marriage will be divided... are you and your spouse.
The law imposes a duty on the parties and their attorneys to engage in settlement discussions prior to utilizing the Court's assistance in deciding a dispute. Settlement discussions commence at the beginning of a case and continue until all issues have been resolved, either by reaching an agreement or by decision of the Court. Settlement negotiations occur in the following ways:
- Your Attorney will negotiate your case on your behalf over the telephone with your spouse's attorney in an attempt to reach an agreement without judicial assistance.
- If a court hearing is necessary, your Attorney will negotiate your case the day of the scheduled court hearing in the hallway outside of the Courtroom. These discussions can be very involved and they often take a considerable amount of time. If you and the other party are unable to come to an agreement, the scheduled hearing will take place. The hearings are scheduled by the court for 20 minutes only. Both parties will be sworn in. Your Attorney will argue on your behalf, and the Judge will make a decision on your issue(s) which will become the Court Order.
- Prior to a hearing for custody and/or visitation of minor children, you and the other parent will be required to attend Child Custody Recommending Counseling Services. A counselor will be assigned to your case and the counselor will assist the two of you in reaching an agreement. If you are unable to reach an agreement in counseling, the counselor will make a recommendation to the Court on what he/she thinks the custody and/or visitation schedule should be. The Court weighs the counselor's recommendation heavily when deciding a matter, however, your Attorney may argue for, or against, a recommendation in appropriate situations.
- You and your Attorney may negotiate a particular issue, or all the issues, in your case by scheduling a 4-Way meeting, whereby both parties and both attorneys meet at one of the law offices, in an informal setting, and attempt to settle the matter(s) in dispute. You and the other party are encouraged to participate in these discussions with the attorneys.
- You and the other party may choose to settle your matter in "mediation." Mediation is a process by which the parties use an agreed-upon neutral person, other than the judge, to attempt to resolve a dispute. The purpose of mediation is not to save the marriage, although that can sometimes happen during mediation, but to help the parties resolve their issues and avoid litigation.
- An extraordinary amount of time and money is wasted when people try to achieve a catharsis for their emotional upsets by litigating petty issues in court. A well-chosen mediator can help people understand this and persuade them to resist the temptation to fight about everything they possibly can, including low priority items.
- It is important that you consult your Attorney with any agreements reached through mediation because your mediator cannot advocate for either party, and your Attorney can help you decide if you have reached a fair settlement or not.