If you’ve never gone through a divorce, and this is your first rodeo in divorce court, you probably wonder what to expect. While your divorce attorney should prep you on what to expect in divorce court and what happens in divorce court hearing procedures, having a thorough understanding of the process may help level-set expectations and make it easier to cope with your divorce.
From divorce hearings to trial: The four pillars of the divorce process
During the initial consultations I conduct with prospective clients—which are very case-specific—I always review the four pillars of divorce and explain how I expect them to play out in their specific cases. LEARN MORE ABOUT OUR CONSULTS HERE.
In general, what happens in divorce court goes something like this. Once the divorce petition has been filed (by you or your spouse), you will have a temporary divorce hearing, which sorts out how the parties must conduct themselves while the case is pending.
The divorce discovery process comes next, which is where you and your attorney pull together necessary information and evidence to back up your case.
Mediation comes next, where the spouses, their attorneys and a mediator meet to try to work through any disagreements pertaining to the case. During mediation, each spouse stays in a separate room with their attorneys, who go back and forth between the mediator and their respective clients to try to come to a resolution that is agreeable to both parties. If the two parties do settle and the agreement is signed by all parties (spouses, attorneys, mediator), the agreement becomes binding and nothing can be changed within the agreement.
If the two spouses are unable to come to an agreement through divorce mediation (the majority of divorces are resolved in mediation), then they head off to trial. During the divorce trial, the parties and their attorneys meet at the courthouse and have their case heard by the judge.
It’s important to note a lot of strategizing goes into each step of the four pillars. It’s not just point, click and go. Experienced divorce attorneys know how to strategically approach each step based on the individual circumstances of the case. They also know when to step on the gas and go guns a blazing and when to hit the breaks.
Another less common option for some couples is the informal settlement. During this process, the parties and attorneys conduct an informal settlement negotiation where everyone is either together or in different rooms and the attorneys attempt to settle the case without a mediator involved. An informal settlement agreement could potentially not be irrevocable if it doesn’t include specific language required by the Texas Family Code. Consequently, it’s critical to have an experienced family law attorney draw up the paperwork for you.
What happens at a divorce hearing?
What happens at the initial divorce court hearing is critical to the outcome of your case. That’s why it’s important to hire a divorce lawyer who prepares for hearings like he or she is preparing for a final trial at the outset of your case.
So, what is a divorce hearing? The initial divorce temporary hearing is much like a final trial in a very condensed fashion. The spouses and their attorneys appear in front of the judge (either in court or via videoconference) to sort out how the parties will behave during the next few months until the divorce is final.
Wondering what to expect at a divorce hearing for temporary orders? This phase acts as a band-aid, where the judge decides on temporary orders that dictate matters concerning temporary child custody, visitation, child support, spousal support and who gets to stay in the marital home during the divorce case. The orders may also include instructions regarding who will pay what bills (mortgage/rent, car payment, insurance, etc.) and other financial matters.
What happens in divorce court during a temporary hearing could also include actions and orders to address family violence or neglect. For example, a judge could issue a temporary restraining order to prohibit one of the parties from coming in contact with the other party and/or their children.
Additional divorce hearings may be necessary during the divorce to address other issues
These hearings may be necessary to resolve issues pertaining to discovery, evidence, non-compliance with court orders and other matters. The attorneys may call in different witnesses or experts to testify at the hearings. Witnesses may include financial experts to discuss business concerns, a family counselor who testifies regarding child custody issues and others.
Again, these temporary hearings can look a lot like a trial. Sometimes, the lawyers will go to a different room to work out deals to preserve the status quo as much as possible, while the clients wait in separate rooms during the back and forth. Other times, we will sit down and gear up with all of our exhibits ready to go. Whether we think we’re going to have a hearing or not, our firm prides itself on always being prepared.
After temporary hearings and discovery work are completed, the case progresses to the divorce final hearing process, which means mediation first and going to trial if mediation doesn’t bring both sides to a mutual agreement. It’s during mediation or a trial that the history of your marriage comes out. Judges will only allow your attorney a limited amount of time to present your case, so you should hire an experienced lawyer who knows how to effectively argue a case and present relevant material under those conditions.
Even if most issues have been sorted out, some divorces get tripped up by one or two issues that bring the case to trial. Going to trial will cost you more time, money and stress, so it’s important to ask yourself if it’s really worth it to spend five or 10 grand arguing over who gets the couch or granny’s tea set.
A good lawyer knows how to narrow the issues. Even if they don’t resolve all conflict and you end up at trial, there is a lot of value to narrowing issues. Maybe you mediate the child custody provisions and all you have is some property to divide. Or maybe all you do is litigate the child support amount, or the post-divorce spousal maintenance, or the division of property with respect to the valuation of a company. If you can narrow the issues going into trial, you save money and hedge risk.
How to prepare for what happens in divorce court
Just because you’re going to court does not mean you’re going to sit in a witness chair and be cross-examined. However, it may mean just that, so you and your attorney should thoroughly prepare for cross-examination just in the case—and do so quickly.
For example, what happens in Tarrant County where our Fort Worth family law firm resides is that due to the fact you get to court fast—14 days on a temporary restraining order—you’re scratching the tip of the iceberg with respect to the evidentiary matters that need to be collected.
The reason that’s so important is your legal team has to prepare like you’re going to the final trial to the best of their ability, with limited information and in a very short period of time. As the client, there are many steps you can take to help ensure the best outcome for your case. These include:
STEP 1: Pin down your divorce strategy right away.
It is mission-critical to establish a solid strategy for your case from day one. That’s something our clients get during their first meeting with us when we do the initial consult. The case strategy is like the foundation of your home. And if you don’t build that foundation on solid ground, you are going to have a house that may fall over, which could be a big problem for your case.
STEP 2: Get the necessary information and paperwork to your attorney ASAP.
I’ve had clients who are very successful business people who have trouble getting us the information we need to present their case. Other people are lazy, procrastinators or just simply overwhelmed. We get it, and it’s our job is to help clients through those aspects. However, it is critical for you to get information to your lawyer early on, so he or she can prepare a proper and effective case.
STEP 3: Meet with your attorney to prep for the divorce hearing, mediation or trial.
During each phase of your case, it’s crucial to review the aspects of that phase and what to expect in divorce court. For example, if you may be cross-examined, your attorney can walk through potential questions and counsel you on how to respond. He or she can also guide you on how to dress (professionally) and present yourself (be calm, stick to the facts, speak when spoken to, etc.).
STEP 4: Understand how the court handles court proceedings.
Judges and courts vary in how they conduct their hearings. An experienced attorney who practices in your area will be familiar with the different courts and how they operate. They can also explain what to expect and how to act. For example, some courts like to take a more informal approach, while other courts are more formal and have court reporters transcribing everything you say. That means the answers you give are considered actual testimony, which could harm (or help) your case in the future.
STEP 5: Treat the court and the judge with the utmost respect.
Judges don’t suffer fools, and they don’t look kindly on litigants who disrespect the court. When you treat the judge respectfully you can expect the same. The judge is the person who will make the ultimate decision about your divorce and future, so be respectful, stick to the facts and never argue with the judge or act out in court. If you get out of line, the judge could rule more favorably toward your spouse and even hold you in contempt of court divorce.
Our Fort Worth family lawyers can answer your questions about divorce
If you’re contemplating divorce and live in North Texas, our family law lawyers in Fort Worth TX are here to help. To schedule an in-depth, confidential case review and strategy session with our founder attorney Justin Sisemore, please call our Fort Worth law office at (817) 336-4444 or connect with us online.
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