Divorce and Family Court can be a scary place, especially for those that have never stepped foot in a family court before. A divorcing party’s role in whether a particular hearing will be successful is crucial, and the preparation should begin long before the day of the hearing. This short guide explains what to expect when you walk into family court for your hearing and how you can best position yourself for success.
Understand the nature of the hearing. In family court, some hearings are more important than others. A divorcing party should know exactly what type of hearing is coming up and what to expect during that hearing. Often, courts will schedule hearings that are intended to merely provide the court with status updates on whether a particular case will settle, how discovery is moving along, and so forth. On the scheme of importance, scheduling hearings are not very important. In other hearings, the judge will make orders on substantive issues. These hearings are important, and may include motions for temporary orders or trial. These hearings require weeks or even months of preparation. The family court may also set a hearing for a pre-trial conference or settlement meeting to try and force the parties to the negotiating table.
Understand the players and courtroom etiquette. When you walk into divorce and family court, often a hoard of other litigants and lawyers will also be present. Ignore them and sit quietly. Usually the bailiff (a sheriff or other police officer) or court clerk (the person sitting next to the judge) will check you in for your hearing. Be polite, as the bailiff and clerk often talk to the judge. They also usually control the order that cases are called. If a clerk doesn’t particularly like a party or their attorney, they could be sitting and waiting for their case to be called for hours. While court is in session, sit quietly and observe the judge and the other cases. This observation time will help you understand what the judge is looking for in particular a situation and you will get a feeling for the judge as a person, which may help in your case.
Understand your role in the upcoming hearing. When a hearing is set in family court, it is of paramount importance to understand your role in that hearing as the client. Are you going to testify? Are any of the other witnesses going to testify? What arguments is your attorney going to make? These are questions you need to know the answer to so that you can help your attorney prepare to ask the right questions and make the right arguments. Most family attorneys are smart but they are not part of your family. You understand your family and the facts involved in your case better than anyone else in the world.
Dress appropriately. Once you understand the nature of the upcoming hearing, start to think about what message you are trying to convey to the court. Are you seeking alimony? If so, you probably do not want to walk into court with a thousand dollar suit, expensive handbag, or large entourage of impressively dressed friends. Are you a mother or father seeking custody? If so, dress like a mom or dad. In all cases, if you have tattoos, piercings, and other body art, take it off or cover it up. Your appearance will speak volumes to the judicial officer.
Be honest. Some of the most detrimental errors that a litigant can make in divorce court is to skirt around a “bad fact,” provide misleading information to the court, or outright lie. In every single divorce case, the most important element to whether the court will side with a particular party or position is based on credibility. If the judge doesn’t believe you are honest, then nothing you say will be given much, if any, weight in the court’s decisions. Nobody is perfect, and every family judge knows that.