Listen to Kimm and Bob from WCSR talk about "What to Expect in Family Court", which aired in August 2022. Or, download the text file and read it later!
What to Expect in Family Court
Coming to court for a divorce or custody agreement may be many people's first experience in a court of law. While some may think that they know exactly how the hearing will go - based on their viewings of Law and Order, Boston Legal or Matlock - in reality court is not exactly like what you see on TV, and is definitely not like what you see on Judge Judy, or The People’s Court. So what can someone expect when they come to family court for the first time?
Court May Not Be Necessary
Going to court, or seeing the judge, is not a guarantee when you are going through a divorce or settling a custody agreement. In fact, it could save you time and money to not go to court, meaning that you and your spouse or partner agree on how to divide all of your assets and debts or how your custody and parenting time schedule will look. Divorce proceedings in court can take months or even years to settle, so if you are able to work it out outside of the courtroom, it would serve everyone better. Divorce and custody agreements can be made up to and even at the final hearing without penalty from the court. Understand though, in most cases, you will appear in front of a judge at least one time in order to formally state the agreement on the record.
Even though you are trying to avoid going into a courtroom, you still may want to hire a lawyer to help you through this process. Unlike criminal matters, you are not appointed an attorney by the Court, you must hire one if you want professional legal help. Handling a divorce or custody arrangements without an attorney can lead to some messy results that will require more legal work and money to straighten out. Even if the dirvorce is amicable and assets will be equally shared, it is still in the best interest of you and your soon-to-be ex to at least consult with an attorney to make sure all of the necessary language and provisions are in your judgment of divorce or custody agreement.
It is always encouraged that both parties continue to communicate with one another through the process, that way an acceptable agreement may be made. It is understood that it may be difficult to have meaningful conversations about custody or the division of assets when going through litigation, however, in the long run, those awkward conversations will usually be more beneficial for everyone involved rather than having the judge decide on who gets what.
When an agreement is reached, it will be put into the form of an order and the order will be submitted to a judge. The judge will then review the agreement and enter it as a court order and at that time the order will be fully enforceable. Again, if you reach an agreement and the judge signs it, you will not necessarily have to go to court.
If You Have to Go to Court
If going to court is unavoidable, make sure you are ready. There are several reasons that you may go to court, or appear in front of the judge. One being that you want the judge to make an order because you cannot agree, another being that you do agree but the agreement is one that must be placed on the record (or said in front of the judge) and both parties must be present so the judge can make sure both parties agree, and a final reason might be because there are no complete resolutions to your case and a trial must be had.
Prior to getting to any of these hearings, paperwork must be submitted to the judge, to your partner/spouse or to their attorney. Some of those documents include financial information such as income information, any debts you may have, any banking information, retirement accounts, and information about your assets. All of these documents are necessary to determine how to divide assets and debts as well as what support may be ordered.
The State of Michigan requires each party to fill out a Domestic Relations Financial Information Form which will provide all of the pertinent financial information from each party. The disclosure statement will take time to prepare, so do not put it off until the last minute. You will be required to know your yearly numbers for expenses including home and auto insurance and gathering all that paperwork will be time consuming. If your financial information changes prior to going to court, you will be required to update the document.
On Your Court Date
On the day you are to appear in court, there are several things to do before and during your case being heard. Be sure to get to the courthouse early or ensure that your appearance is in person or by Zoom (video). Give yourself some time to get mentally prepared. You will have to go through security in most courthouses so do not bring any type of weapon to court even if you have a concealed pistol license (CPL) or any type of knife or other weapon or pepper spray.
Make sure you are dressed appropriately. You do not have to wear a suit, but dress in business or business casual attire. No cut off t-shirts or cut off jeans. No tube tops or flip flops. No shirts with obscene language or drug paraphernalia. Present yourself as well groomed as you are able. Poor dress does not give a good impression to the judge.
Do not bring your children with you to court. Your divorce is between you and your ex, not your children. If your child(ren) is asked to testify, the judge will arrange this. Do not bring them with you. They will not be allowed in the courtroom and it will reflect poorly on you.
Check in with the court’s clerk. If your lawyer is there before you, they will check in for the both of you. Silence your phone before entering the courtroom, or turn it off. Be prepared to wait. There may be several cases that will be heard during your time slot. Wait patiently and quietly with your lawyer.
When your case is called, you and your attorney will stand before the judge. Do not speak unless spoken to. If you are asked to speak, be sure to speak loudly and clearly. Answer any question you are asked truthfully and look at the judge when you are speaking to him/her.
Depending on the hearing, it is most likely you will not be asked to speak, your lawyer will speak on your behalf. If you are required to speak, do not banter with your ex or their lawyer and always be respectful, no matter how terse the other person may be. This will upset your attorney and the judge. Oftentimes people feel that something has been missed or unsaid and they feel the need to correct their lawyer or their exes lawyer. Do not! If you feel something has been missed or is untrue, whisper to your lawyer and they will bring up the subject. Trust that your lawyer is working to do what is best for you. Disrupting the court will only hurt your case, not help it.
Getting a divorce is an emotional and stressful process. In Michigan there are 2.1 divorces for every 1,000 people in Michigan. The number of divorces has actually been decreasing since it peaked in the 1980s. But no matter the numbers, it is important to know what you need to ensure you are fairly represented in your divorce.
Going through a divorce - with or without children - is an emotional time. There is a lot of information to gather and decisions that must be made. Even in the most amicable of situations, it is best to have a lawyer to help you through the process. Make sure you have a good family law attorney to be there to answer all your questions and represent your best interest.
A licensed attorney in the community can answer questions about tenant or landlord rights or the eviction moratorium.
"I want to hear your side of the story."