Most people who end up in a family law courtroom have never been to court before. Perhaps they've served on a jury or appeared for a traffic infraction, but rarely has a divorce litigant actually stood in front of a judge fighting for what is most important to them: family, financial stability, and emotional security.
What to expect at divorce court
Since courtroom television dramas don't represent what divorce court actually entails, we thought we'd run down some of the basics here. By demystifying some of the unknowns, we hope to better equip you so you can focus on your case.
Parking at divorce court
If you live in a metropolitan area, prepare to pay for parking, and understand it may be challenging to find a good spot. Bring change for street meters and cash for parking lots. Some lots accept credit cards ... until they don't.
Security at divorce court
The line for courthouse entry can be long. In many courthouses, you must pass through a metal detector. Think airport security: Prepare to take off your shoes and belt, empty your pockets, and wait. Arrive early to avoid the stress of worrying that the security line will make you late.
Check-in at divorce court
Each judge runs their courtroom slightly differently. If you have a lawyer, your lawyer will check you in. If you are representing yourself or your lawyer is running late (not good), ask the court attendant or bailiff if you should check in.
Just outside the courtrooms, the clerk usually posts a list of hearings by the door. Check to see if your case is on there. Find out what number and page you are on the list. That way, when you check in, the clerk does not have to page through the entire list trying to find you. (The nicer you are to courtroom staff, the more willing they will be to help and accommodate you when you need it most.) Often, judges call the roll when they reach the bench. Knowing which line number you are makes you feel more in control and prepared for when you get called.
Clerks and other court staff
Remember that clerk we told you to be nice to? Assuming the judge hasn't taken the bench, feel free to kindly ask whether there is anything (or any document) you should be aware of. (Remember: They are multi-tasking like crazy.) For example, if you have already attended family court services for mediation but have not received the report, chances are the court staff has a copy. It's great to get your hands on it as early as possible.
There is no jury at divorce court
Almost all family law matters are heard by a judge and a judge only. No jury in your divorce.
Your judge has eyes in the back of their head. They are "judging" litigants (and lawyers) before they even stand up. While sitting in the galley, watch your facial expressions. Remove your hat. Don't chew gum. And PLEASE turn off your cell phone.
When the judge calls your case, proceed to the table in front of the judge. Usually, there are two tables: one for the petitioner and one for the respondent. Remain standing until you are told to sit. Often, the judge will instruct the clerk to "swear you in" so your testimony will be under oath.
Divorce court is usually a public hearing
It would be unusual for you to be in the courtroom on your own. Almost always, there are several other people there: litigants, lawyers, interpreters, volunteers, family, friends. Speaking of which, if you'd like to bring a support person to sit with you during negotiations and while you wait for your case to be called, do it! Because there are so many other people in the courtroom who need the judge's attention, your case may be called out of order, especially if you have a contested matter.
If you prefer your case not to be litigated in front of other (unknown) people, consider hiring a private judge. While expensive, a private judge can be worth the money for a variety of reasons:
- Efficiency: Get a hearing when you need it without having to wait one to three months.
- Privacy: Outside people rarely attend private judge hearings.
- Choice: You have a say in who hears (and decides) your case.
Court reporters may not be at your hearing in divorce court
Unfortunately, not all courts provide a court reporter. Find out ahead of time whether there will be one. If not, consider hiring one for your hearing. Court reporters generally sit in front of the judge and type everything that you, your opponent, and the judge says.
Once your case is called, you will be "on the record." Everything will be taken down. So, speak clearly and slowly. If you believe the judge has not made an order about a specific issue, ask them about it. And if you are uncertain what the actual order was, ask for clarity.
Finally, if you believe disagreement may ensue after the hearing about what the judge did or did not order (this happens more often than you'd think; many people hear what they want to hear), ask the reporter for their business card after your case so you can obtain a transcript of the proceedings.