Family Court and Final Judgment
Married couples always start off with the best intentions and try to make things work during a marriage. Unfortunately, not all marriages are meant to be. When it comes to divorce, it's also great if a couple can resolve any issues they have informally. But if you and your soon-to-be ex can’t come to an agreement on your own, you might have to go to court to determine who gets what, from the kids to the coffee table. Here is a quick overview of what you can expect from a divorce case in family court and the final judgment.
Divorce Cases in Court
The vast majority of divorce cases reach some sort of settlement -- whether through informal negotiation between the spouses (and their attorneys) or through more structured proceedings, such as mediation or collaborative law.
But in rare divorce cases, no settlement can be reached, usually because the spouses are too far apart in their respective wishes and what they see as fair solutions on issues such as child custody, child support, and property division. In these situations, the divorce will be handled in civil or "family" court, at the county/district branch of state court where the divorce petition was filed. A single judge usually presides over a divorce trial, although one or both spouses may have the right to request a jury trial.
The Court Process: Evidence and Arguments
In family court, attorneys for each spouse present evidence and arguments related to the divorce on issues like child custody and visitation, child and spousal support, and property division. Evidence in a divorce trial can come in the form of:
- Testimony from the spouses;
- Witness testimony -- including children (if old enough) and expert witnesses (financial analysts, property valuation experts, etc.); and
- Documents -- including records related to marital property and finances.
As each side presents its own evidence and arguments, the other side has an opportunity to question witnesses and challenge evidence through "cross-examination" -- challenging the witness's story, testing their credibility, disputing documents, and otherwise attempt to discredit or discount witnesses and evidence.
The Court Process: Final Judgment
After hearing and examining all evidence, the judge (or jury) will issue a final ruling resolving the divorce and all surrounding issues. Once the judge reaches a decision, he or she grants the divorce and enters a judgment finalizing the divorce and all related issues. This judgment dictates a number of things about the now-divorced couple's rights and obligations, including:
- Division of the couple's marital property, debts, and resolution of other financial matters;
- Child custody, living arrangements, and a visitation schedule; and
- Child support and spousal support (alimony): who pays, who receives, how much, when, etc.
Once a judgment is entered, either or both spouses can appeal a trial court judge's decision to a higher ("appellate" or "appeals") court, although it is unusual for an appeals court to overturn a judge or jury's decision in a divorce case.
Divorce proceedings, especially in a courtroom, can be complicated and stressful. Consulting with an experienced divorce attorney could make the process easier and better protect your rights. You can also find more general information on this topic in FindLaw’s divorce section.