How A Divorce or Other Family Law Case Proceeds
If you are, or your spouse is, considering divorce, or if you have another family law issue, deciding to see a lawyer is difficult. People do not know what to expect, or what is expected of them. Following is a summary of the steps that may, or will, happen in your divorce or other family law matter.
Step 1: Initial Interview
Before you see Peter, he or his assistant will obtain some basic information about your case and will make sure that Peter does not have a “conflict,” which means that he has not previously represented the other side or has had access to confidential information about the other side from his prior law experience. When you meet with Peter, he will ask you for additional information, and will work with you to understand the probable issues in your case. Your questions are always welcome, including questions about your case and about Peter’s experience and approach to your case. You will then need to decide whether Peter is the right person to help you resolve your case. Any information you share with Peter or his assistant during this initial stage is kept strictly confidential.
Step 2: Retaining Peter
If you decide to hire Peter, you need to complete an information form to provide basic information (names, addresses, etc.), which will be used to prepare letters, pleadings (documents that are filed with the court), agreements, and other documents. You will also be asked to sign an attorney/client contract or an engagement letter, which will govern the terms of the business relationship between you and Peter. You will be required to pay a “retainer,” which is a deposit that is used to pay your attorney fees and costs as you incur them.
Step 3: Filing or Responding to a Divorce or Other Family Law Dispute
In virtually every family law case, one party files an initial document and has it “served” in some manner on the other side, who must then “respond” or “appear” to defend himself or herself. For example, if you are filing for a divorce, we will prepare and file in court a Summons and Petition for Dissolution of Marriage, and other associated documents. Your spouse must be served with those papers. This generally happens by having the spouse sign a piece of paper acknowledging that he or she received the Petition, Summons, and other documents, or having a process server give the documents to the spouse personally.
The Petition or other initial document contains certain required factual statements and a “wish list” that spells out how you or your spouse wants the divorce to be resolved. People often get concerned about the wish list. The allegations in a Petition are no cause for alarm; simply because the other side is asking for something does not mean he or she will obtain that result.
Once the Petition or other document is served, the other side has to file a document in response to the initiating document, which is also filed with the court. In a divorce, the response will generally admit or deny the factual allegations of the Petition. It will also contain a response to the “wish list,” and sometimes may include a request for different kinds of relief.
There are court filing fees for initiating and for responding to a divorce or modification action.
Step 4: Information Gathering
The next step in your case will be to obtain information necessary to assess and resolve your case. This process is called “discovery.” It is very important that all assets and liabilities are fully disclosed to each party in a divorce. You will be asked to work with Peter to provide this information.
Sometimes, it may be necessary to hire outside experts to help with your case. In a divorce, for example, one or both sides might hire real property appraisers to value the family home or other real estate, a business appraiser to value a party’s business interest, or a CPA to give tax advice and assist with the financial aspects of the case.
If you are dealing with a contentious child custody or parenting time issue, the parties may agree, or the court may order, that a specialist, usually a psychologist or qualified licensed clinical social worker, to evaluate the family’s circumstances and make recommendations about child custody and parenting time.
Step 5: Temporary Relief
In a divorce, sometimes it is necessary at the beginning of the case to ask the court to make orders for temporary relief, which the court may award after the case is filed, but before it is finally concluded. Temporary relief may include, among other things, temporary spousal or child support, temporary exclusive use of the family home, temporary custody of minor children, payment of monthly bills, and payment of attorney fees, and "suit money, " to assist you in retaining experts to help with your case.
Step 6: Settlement Negotiations ,Mediation and Alternative Dispute Resolution
It is Peter’s goal to work with you and the other side to try and resolve some or all of the issues in your case, through settlement negotiations and mediation. In a divorce, this usually happens after the discovery process is well under way, although it is often possible, and desirable, for the parties to resolve custody and parenting issues before dealing with financial issues. After a case is settled, either through direct negotiations between parties and lawyers, or through mediation or arbitration, one of the lawyers will draft a document called a “judgment.” The judgment is the document that effectuates the divorce. Once both parties agree on the form of the judgment, it will be presented to a trial court judge for signature. It will then be filed with the court, and the divorce or modification will be final. Unless both parties agree to an award of attorney fees as part of their settlement, attorney fees are generally not awarded in settled cases. Also, if your case was settled, except under very limited circumstances, neither party can appeal.
Step 7: Hearings and Trials
If you and the other side cannot resolve all of the issues, a judge will decide them for you. Depending on the issues, this may take a few hours, or several days. Typically, a divorce in which every issue is contested will take from one to three days to complete.
Each party will have an opportunity to present his or her case to the trial judge. The trial judge will then make a decision, after which one of the lawyers will draft an order or judgment that incorporates the judge’s ruling.
Once the judgment is signed and entered in the court record, if the case was contested, either party may request an award of attorney fees, and either party may appeal from the case. Peter is able to represent you in both of those disputes.
Step 8: Final Steps
Once the case is resolved, your case will be closed, and your important financial documents will be returned to you. Peter will then file documents with the court to officially withdraw as your attorney of record.