Going through a family law case is agonizing emotionally, taxing financially, complicated, confusing, and expensive, regardless of whether you and your spouse are getting along or at each other's throats, whether you have an attorney (or attorneys) or not, how much education you have, or how much money or how many children you have. It also can be difficult to get accurate and clear information, as it seems everyone has their own agenda in offering you their opinion. Your friends give you advice based on their experience, and each family law case is so different that it can be difficult if not dangerous to generalize. Attorneys give you information designed to convince you that you need their services (and to pay them lots of money). The media gives you information about celebrities with endless amounts of money. The internet gives you so much information that it's impossible to determine what's accurate.
This guide is designed to help you represent yourself in a court hearing or trial. I believe that it is not always necessary to hire an attorney at exorbitant cost to complete your family law case successfully. This guide can be your starting place for saving as much as possible during your family law case. You CAN do it yourself, and I can help.
If you need more assistance than this guide, I can also help with hourly coaching. With just an hour or two of coaching, I can guide you through the maze of forms, documents, requirements, expectations, and knowledge required to emerge from your family law filing, hearing, judgment or trial with success. My fees are a small fraction of the cost of hiring an attorney, most often 5% or less of this cost. In today's economy, having the backing and experience of an experienced family law litigator on your side at the cost of an attorney consultation can be the difference between winning your case or losing everything.
Following are the Top 25 things you must know before going to your court hearing (in no particular order):
If you act inappropriately by being rude or disrespectful or not mindful of the judge's orders or comments, then you will dig yourself a hole that it is nearly impossible to escape from. If the judge gets upset with you, then that judge will remember it, and what happened, for the duration of your case. Even if you do not appear before the court for months or even years, the judge will have a negative feeling about you that will adversely affect your success in your case (if not land you in jail).
Visit the courthouse/court room in advance of your hearing- see how people act, dress, when they arrive, and how the judge acts.
Arrive early to the courthouse to take into account traffic, parking, nerves, and getting lost.
When you arrive at the court room, look around you and notice all posted signs and notices. These will tell you what to do.
In many court rooms, you need to let someone know that you've arrived so the court knows that you're present. Often this person is the bailiff in the court room. Let the bailiff know you've arrived by telling him or her your name and case name.
Dress as formally as you are comfortable with, as if you were attending a formal business meeting. It will make you look more serious and respectful of the court. Do not go overboard, however. If you will be utterly uncomfortable such that you'll be fidgeting and distracted, then just dress as formally as you can while remaining comfortable.
Always say thank you to the judge at the end of your hearing, even if you've lost. You are thanking the judge for his time and consideration, even if s/he didn't agree with you.
Do not interrupt the judge. Ever.
Take care in interrupting your opposing party. You will generally be given a chance to respond to anything your opponent says. If you are not, you may politely ask to respond to the last comments, and most often, you will be given this opportunity. The key is to ask for the opportunity and not to launch directly into your opposition. Request to be heard first.
When you are in front of the judge, avoid talking directly to your opponent. All comments and argument should be To the judge and not include any side conversations with your opposing party.
Many courts have local rules requiring parties to "meet and confer" with each other prior to going before the judge. Sometimes, this is a requirement to confer in writing before the hearing, and sometimes it is a requirement to confer at the court house prior to sitting at the table before the judge. Meeting and conferring is simply talking to your opponent (or their attorney) about the issues before the court, and seeing if there is anything you can agree to. Anything you can agree to is one less thing the judge must decide (and is one less chance you have to take that the judge will not go your way).
If you are represented by counsel, you may not speak directly to your opponent's attorney, and conversely, your opponent's attorney may not speak to you without your attorney present (or your attorney's permission). If you call or write to your opponent's attorney when you are represented, it is not only a bad idea, but the attorney will not speak to you because of this rule.
Judges are people, too. This means that not only do they have bad days and make bad decisions sometimes, but also they differ in their approach to certain issues. Family law is extremely local, so not only are there rules by state, but there are local county rules and informal tendencies on the behalf of judges. It is a good idea to visit your local family law courtrooms and listen to the judges handle hearings. Listen carefully for issues that come up before the judge that are similar to issues you face. Based on how the judge acts, you will understand better how your case will fare in that particular court room.
Each individual case has its own unique arguments, and you will need to be prepared to offer your arguments to the judge. You may want to consider speaking to a family law coach (see www.CaFamilyLawCoach.com and mention this offer for 20% off an hour of coaching) prior to your hearing to determine your best arguments.
Some arguments will never get you anywhere. Arguments that the judge (or opponent) is being unfair, or allegations of infidelity, protestations that you never wanted the divorce, or declarations of emotions will not only not get you anywhere, you risk angering or an
annoying the judge.
Look at your county court website to see what information is posted. It may be useful to know that your judge also does criminal hearings, or if s/he hears exclusively family law.
If you have been assigned to a commissioner, then you may "non-stipulate" to a commissioner and be assigned to a judge. If you have done your homework, then you will know if there is a commissioner who comes down on the opposite site of an issue you have. If you happen to be assigned to this commissioner, then you can non-stipulate and be reassigned.
Bring a notebook with you to court. You're going to want to take notes.
Once the judge has heard all s/he needs to hear from you and your opponent, s/he is going to make an order. You will be able to recognize this because s/he will state something to the effect of hearing enough or being ready to decide. Everything that s/he says after that you will need to write down. This is the order of the court, and one of you (you or your opponent) will need to put the order into writing as soon as possible after the hearing. This is a critical step, and if there is an error, you could lose a great deal later. You may want to solicit help with your order, and an attorney consultation will not help you. Family law coaching, however, can help you with this.
Obtain the Minute Order (MO) from the court after your hearing. The Minute Order is the court recording of the order. While it specifically states that it is neither complete nor necessarily accurate, it is a good starting point for creating your order. It will also have attachments, such as a support calculation print-out or mediation reports.
Obtain the transcript from your court trial. Things often happen quickly in a trial, and sometimes judges make orders in the middle as opposed to at the end. A transcript will not only help you prepare the order or judgment, but will also help you if your trial is continued to a later date. The continuation of your trial could be months or more.
Do not go into your child or spousal support hearing unprepared. Support calculations, while they may seem very straightforward, can be easily manipulated. There are a number of different ways to calculate income, percentage timeshare, the effect of other children in the home, dependency exemptions, mortgage interest, etc. Support calculations can be very complex, and particularly if you are up against an experienced lawyer, you will want assistance to avoid being blindsided by what you did not know. For more assistance in child and spousal support calculations, see The Family Law Coach's article, Is the Other Parent Getting the Advantage in Your Child/Spousal Support Order? 30 Things You can do to Turn the Tide NOW!
At your court hearing or trial, the judge will only hear issues put before the court. This means that the issues listed in your Order to Show Cause (OSC) (for a hearing) or the Petition (for a trial) will be the ONLY issues addressed by the court. If there is another issue you wish to raise, you may not wait until the day of the hearing to do so. The judge will deny your request. If you receive an Order to Show Cause that does not include an issue you want to raise, then you may file your own Order to Show Cause and ask the calendaring clerk when you file the Order to Show Cause to put yours on the same day. This will be allowed, and in fact encouraged, so long as you have enough time to serve your opponent before the date.
Everything you put in writing and show the court or the judge must be given to your opponent as well. Most things, such as Order to Show Causes, orders after hearing, and declarations, also require a Proof of Service documenting when and how you sent the document to your opponent.
Just because it cannot be emphasized enough, do not make the judge angry. S/he will warn you if you are being inappropriate. Do not push.
Generally, debts incurred during the marriage are community obligations. This includes credit card bills, even if the credit card is in one name only. Student loans are an important exception because they are considered separate property debts. Community property possessions and community property debts are divided equally unless both spouses agree to an unequal division in writing. If spouses can't agree on the division of debts and possessions, a judge makes that decision.
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