By Carrie E. Kelly
Attorney at Law
The Gasper Law Group
Chances are, if you’ve come to this article, you’re either contemplating filing a divorce or you’ve recently been served with divorce paperwork and are wondering what the heck the next six months of your life will look like. The intent of this article is to give you a basic idea of how a typical divorce progresses so that you have some idea what you’re going to be facing. Depending on your particular case, there may be a need for additional hearings or emergency motions, but most cases will fit into this basic roadmap.
Step One: The Initial Status Conference
The Initial Status Conference is usually held 30 days after the divorce is filed. There are two goals of the Initial Status Conference. The first is for the parties to let the judge know what issues are going to be involved in their case. There are five potential issues in every case: spousal maintenance, parental responsibility/parenting time, child support, division of debt and division of property. Not every potential issue applies in all cases, so the judge will want to know what your particular case involves.
The second goal is for the judge to give the parties deadlines and to schedule a Temporary Orders Hearing. If you have children, you will receive information on the mandatory parenting class. If you haven’t already completed your initial financial disclosures, you will be given a deadline. If you think you may have a need for either a parenting evaluator or a financial expert, you will be given a deadline for requesting the appointment of an expert. And finally, if you have already reached any agreements, the judge will include them as part of your order.
Expect this court date to take approximately 15 minutes
Step Two: The Settlement Conference
Sometime after the Initial Status Conference but before the Temporary Orders hearing, you’ll need to participate in a settlement conference. The Settlement Conference only needs to cover the Temporary Orders issues. We don’t need to decide who is going to take on the Visa and the Mastercard on a permanent basis, we only need to decide who is going to pay the minimum monthly balance while the divorce is pending. It’s important not to get too far ahead of yourselves.
The only real requirement for a settlement conference is for each party to inform the other party what they intend to ask for at the Temporary Orders Hearing and to make an attempt at finding any common ground. How exactly this is arranged is up to the parties. The most common scenario is for the parties and the attorneys to all meet at one attorney’s office and have a face to face discussion. If this can’t be arranged (due to work schedules, for example) or is undesirable (often victims of domestic violence are uncomfortable with this set up), a telephone conference may be set up or the attorneys may even trade proposals back and forth over a period of days.
Step Three: The Temporary Orders Hearing
If you had a successful Settlement Conference, you will not need to have a Temporary Orders Hearing at all. If you settled some, but not all or none of the Temporary Orders issues, then you will need to have either a partial or full hearing.
Temporary Orders hearings are generally held 30 days after the Initial Status Conference, but the exact timing will depend on the court’s calendar and the availability of the parties. The hearing typically lasts one hour which means you will only get ½ hour to both present your case and to cross examine the other party. This is a very limited amount of time so it is important that you stay focused during your testimony.
At the end of your Temporary Orders Hearing, the judge will issue orders about temporary spousal maintenance, temporary use of marital property, temporary payment of marital debts, temporary parenting time and temporary child support. These orders are temporary in that they are in effect while your divorce is ongoing. The judge will revisit all of these issues at the Final Orders Hearing, but in the meantime, these are the orders of the court and you must comply with them.
Step Four: Mediation.
Mediation is held after Temporary Orders Hearing but before Final Orders Hearing. The purpose of Mediation is to try to arrive at a full or partial agreement for all of the Final Orders issues in your case. If you’ve asked for a parenting or financial expert, Mediation should be held after those reports come out so that you can take that into consideration.
Most mediators use what is referred to as the “shuttle” method. Each party is in a room with their attorney and the mediator goes back and forth between the rooms trying to fashion an agreement. Anything you say in mediation cannot be used against you at the Final Orders Hearing, so you should feel free to try to find a solution that meets your needs without fear of having the other party come back at Final Orders and testify that you were willing to take responsibility for the Visa bill and now you’re just being stubborn.
In addition to communicating the proposals of the other party, a good mediator will try to help the parties brainstorm solutions to their problems and let you know if you’re very close to an agreement or worlds apart. You may feel pressured by the mediator to come to an agreement, but don’t assume this means that the mediator is biased against you. The mediator will attempt to make both sides be reasonable in their requests and if you’re asking for something a judge is unlikely to order anyway, a good mediator shouldn’t hesitate to point this out to you. Be confident that the same approach is being taken in both rooms.
Step Five: Final Orders Hearing
Just as with the Settlement Conference, you may either reach a full, partial or no agreement at Mediation. If there are still contested issues, you may ask the court to adopt a partial agreement and then proceed to hearing on the remaining issues. If you reach a full settlement in Mediation, it may still be necessary to proceed to Final Orders just to place the agreement on the record but the hearing should not take long. If you are having either a full or partial hearing, plan on spending at least a half day in court if not longer depending in the complexity of your case and whether it will be necessary to call any witnesses.
At the conclusion of the Final Orders Hearing, the judge will enter Final orders. Certain of these orders cannot be changed in the future and certain of them remain modifiable under special circumstances. Taken individually, the judge will address:
1. Spousal Maintenance. The judge will set an amount and a length of time. The amount of spousal maintenance may be modified down the road unless otherwise specified based on changes in incomes of the parties. The duration of spousal maintenance typically cannot unless the receiving party is remarried.
2. Parental Responsibilities/Parenting Time. These orders are modifiable until the children are 18. Depending on the basis for modification and what sort of modification is sought, there may be a limit on how frequently the orders may be modified or a special burden of proof, but the orders are modifiable.
3. Child Support. Any change in income or expenses which results in a 10% increase or decrease will allow for a change in a child support order.
4. Division of Assets. Absent some showing of fraud within a limited period of time, these orders cannot be changed.
5. Division of Debts. As with assets, these orders will remain unless there is some proof of fraud which would allow the court to reopen the issue.