You’ve hired an attorney. You have filed for divorce. The complaint has been reviewed and filed with the court or you’ve approved the answer and counterclaim. The divorce process has legally started. You reflect on the path that led you here and try to imagine what the path ahead holds. “So, what’s next?” you ask your attorney, “well……. it depends.”
There is no straightforward answer to what the divorce process will look like. Each case, like the individuals involved, is unique. However, there are some terms you may hear your attorney use to describe the potential steps in a contested divorce case that you should be familiar with.
Steps in a contested divorce case:
Discovery is the part of a lawsuit that allows the parties to build their case by requiring the other side to answer questions under oath and to produce documents in their possession within a legally prescribed time frame. The “discovery window” usually starts running when an answer is filed and lasts for six months though the Court can extend or shorten this period at its discretion.
If the parties can agree to the terms of their divorce, they are able to enter into a settlement agreement expressing how assets and debts will be divided, alimony, and child custody and visitation with minor children among other issues. Should all the terms be agreed to the parties can ask the Court to enter a final judgment and decree of divorce that incorporates those terms.
While settlement is always an option during a divorce case, there are some issues or situations which could call for a decision to be made by the Court. A temporary hearing is an appearance before the Court where the parties can ask the Court to determine what the “rules of engagement” will be until the final hearing. During a temporary hearing the Court hears evidence regarding custody, visitation, temporary alimony, temporary child support, and what the living situation of the parties will be until the divorce is finalized. The Court cannot determine issues of property division at a temporary hearing but it can set down how the parties are to conduct themselves and their respective obligations until the divorce is finalized.
In some instances, settlement negotiations between parties can break down for any number of reasons. Mediation provides an opportunity for the parties to meet on neutral ground, with a neutral third-party who has a background in family law and has been educated on the issues in the case and the positions of the parties to see if the parties can resolve the case. This process can take many shapes, however it usually involves the mediator going back and forth between the parties, relaying offers and figuring out if there is any “wiggle room” on either side. While a judge can order you to go to mediation, a judge cannot order you to settle. Mediation gives the parties a chance to determine for themselves what their future will look like. If an agreement is reached the terms will be written down and added to a settlement agreement. If the parties do not reach an agreement then a final hearing on the issues of the divorce will take place.
A final hearing is exactly what it sounds like, the last Court appearance where the remaining issues in the case will be argued and determined. Once the parties have presented their evidence, either a Judge or a jury will decide the what the outcome will be.
While not every divorce will involve all of the items, for example if you’re dealing with an uncontested divorce it would require different steps, knowing what these terms mean allows you to more fully understand what is going on in your case. It can also help you understand your divorce attorney, especially when they present what options are available; it is after all your case and your life. It is important to understand what is happening, why it’s happening, and what the outcomes may be.