What Happens in a Divorce Trial?

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Divorce matters can often be settled through negotiation, mediation, or by using other collaborative processes. When agreements cannot be reached, however, the issues may need to be litigated in court. In highly contentious cases, going to trial (sometimes called a “long-cause hearing” or an “evidentiary hearing”) may be the only way to reach a final decision.

When Would a Case Be Resolved with a Divorce Trial?

A trial judge determines the outcome of any issues that were not settled between the parties. The trial judge also evaluates competent evidence, like testimony, documents/exhibits, recordings or reports concerning all critical matters such as:

  • Property division
  • Debt allocation
  • Reimbursement claims
  • Child custody
  • Child support
  • Spousal support/alimony
  • Attorney’s Fees
  • The validity or enforceability of a premarital agreement
  • The date of separation

A judge may preside over a trial over all of the issues, or only some of the issues - depending on whether some issues were resolved by agreement. For instance, you and your spouse might agree on property division, but child custody may remain in dispute. In such cases, only the issues that were not settled would be tried in court.

In some cases, a threshold legal issue may be “bifurcated” or set for trial early and before any of the other issues are tried, if the outcome of that threshold issue would significantly impact the outcome of all or most of the other issues. For example, a court could set a bifurcated trial on the issue of the validity of a premarital agreement, as the outcome of that decision will impact whether or not spousal support or community property principles are at work.

Other financial issues may not require a trial, even if they cannot be agreed upon. In the event spouses agree on everything else, they can ask a judge to render a decision on child support or temporary spousal support if their finances are relatively straightforward by filing a Request for Order and requesting a “short-cause” hearing, usually lasting no more than 20 minutes. Rather than preside over a lengthy and complex trial, a judge would conduct a shorter hearing to decide on temporary orders.

What Are the Stages of a Divorce Trial?

The divorce process in California begins by filing a Summons and Petition with the court — and serving it on your spouse. After the initial pleadings have been filed and served, the discovery process will begin. This is the phase where financial information and other documentation is exchanged between the parties so that they can successfully present settlement proposals or prepare for hearings or contested trials. Formal discovery requests can be made by using a variety of tools such as interrogatories, demands for inspection of documents, subpoenas, and depositions. If a party fails to respond to a discovery request, the other party can file a motion compelling them to respond.

Typically, there will be a number of conferences and hearings leading up to the divorce trial. A four-way conference between the spouses and attorneys must be held outside of court prior to a pre-trial Settlement Conference to negotiate the remaining issues and explore the possibility of settlement. If a resolution cannot be reached at this point, a pre-trial conference with the judge will be held to clarify each party’s position and determine whether a settlement can be reached. Once all pre-trial activities have been completed, including the exchange of financial disclosure and discovery, a trial date can be requested.

A divorce trial requires a significant amount of preparation. You will need to work closely with your attorney to ensure you have adequate evidence to prove your position. Evidence must be relevant and can come in the form of documents, items, exhibits, or witnesses testimony. There are many rules and procedures that must be followed when it comes to presenting evidence. Before you can raise any evidence at trial, a judge will have to determine that the proposed evidence is relevant and admissible.

On the day of the divorce trial, you will be presenting the information related to the issue in dispute to a judge. While juries do not determine divorce matters in California, it is important to be aware that the courtroom is still open to the public. Depending on the judge, each side may have an opportunity to make an opening statement summarizing the issues that need to be resolved, the evidence that will be presented, and the witnesses that will be introduced - and in what order.

Is it Better to Go to Trial or Settle?

Settling a divorce case has many advantages, including predictability of the outcome, less cost, and (often) less stress. You and your spouse are also more likely to be satisfied with the outcome of your case if you decide the issues between yourselves, rather than let a judge who does not know you or your family determine the outcome of important issues. Not only can reaching a resolution outside of court be more cost-effective and efficient, but you can find creative solutions that might not be available in litigation.

However, not every divorce case can be resolved amicably outside of court. For example, if domestic violence is an issue or you suspect your spouse might be hiding assets, it may be best to proceed through the litigation process. There are a number of discovery tools that are available when a case is litigated in court that can be helpful — especially in cases that are particularly contentious, or where there is a disparity in power between the parties.

Contact an Experienced California Divorce and Family Law Attorney

If you are considering divorce, a skillful family law attorney can advise you regarding your rights and options. Located in Walnut Creek, Bednarczyk & Valerio, LLP offers knowledgeable counsel for a wide variety of divorce and family law matters, including those involving litigation and alternative dispute resolution. Call 925-464-2494 or contact us online to schedule a consultation to learn how we can help.

Categories: Divorce