If the thought of going to a divorce hearing terrifies you, you’re not alone. Divorce court is terrifying – not only because it’s completely different than anything you’ve ever experienced before, but also because you have so much at stake. Actually, you have everything at stake.
If you want to make it through your divorce hearing successfully, you can’t waltz into it without first understanding how divorce court works. If you expect a real divorce court room to be anything like what you see on T.V., you’re going to be sorely disappointed. You’re also likely to be wildly unprepared.
Unfortunately, being unprepared in divorce court is never a good thing.
What’s the Difference Between a Divorce Hearing and a Trial?
Before you can start to get yourself ready to go through your divorce hearing, you first have to understand exactly what a divorce hearing is.
Strictly speaking, a divorce hearing is a court proceeding at which a judge takes evidence and makes a decision about some issue in your divorce. The “evidence” may be in the form of written documents, or digital records (like email). Or it may be actual testimony from you, your spouse, or another witness.
A divorce hearing is different than a divorce trial. A divorce trial happens at the end of your case. At trial, a judge decides all of the outstanding issues in your divorce. Once that’s done, the judge grants your divorce and it becomes final.
A divorce hearing usually happens while your divorce case is pending. (You can also have hearings on post-divorce issues, too.) At a divorce hearing, the judge will typically resolve whatever issues are pending before him/her for hearing. But the judge is not deciding every issue in the case.
The judge’s ruling on any issue presented at a hearing is normally temporary. It stays in place until the final divorce trial occurs. The final divorce judgment usually (but not always) replaces every temporary ruling in any divorce case.
Typical Divorce Court Hearing Issues
Divorce court hearings can be held on a variety of different issues. Some of these issues are:
- Temporary Custody (in Illinois this would be a Temporary Allocation of Parental Responsibilities);
- Temporary Child Support;
- Contribution to a Spouse’s Divorce Attorney’s Fees;
- Temporary Spousal Support;
- Discovery Disputes;
- Issues Surrounding Your Home (i.e. Who Gets To Live In It And Who Pays For It While The Divorce Is Pending):
- Protective Orders;
- Contempt of Court for Not Following Court Orders;
- Temporary Restraining Orders; and
- Other issues that need to be decided before trial to move your case forward.
The way that a divorce hearing is conducted to resolve those issues, depends a lot on where you live, and how the court system in your area operates. Even still, most hearings are conducted in a fairly similar way.
What Happens in a Divorce Hearing (in General)
The divorce court room that you walk into may have hardwood walls, impressive furniture, and a white-haired judge who looks like he’s straight out of a Hollywood movie. But, it probably won’t. Real court rooms can be beautiful. But many of them are old, outdated and seriously cramped for space. Real divorce judges come in every size, shape, gender and age.
The way that your divorce hearing will be conducted varies depending upon where you live, and how your particular court system operates. Some divorce court systems use hearing officers to handle preliminary matters. Others only use judges: your divorce judge conducts every hearing him/herself.
Regardless of who rules on your case, most divorce hearings proceed in a very similar way. The clerk calls your case. You, your lawyer, your spouse, and your spouse’s lawyer then either all step up to the judge’s bench, or you sit at tables in the court room while the hearing proceeds.
The lawyers will do most of the talking at the hearing. You may or may not be asked to testify during the trial. If you are, you will have to swear to tell the truth before you testify. (Yes, this part really is like TV!)
The lawyers will argue your case for you. If you don’t have a lawyer, you will have to argue your case yourself. That is NOT a great idea, but if you have no lawyer, you have no choice. After the hearing is over, the judge will issue a ruling (decision) on the issues presented. That ruling generally (but not always) stays in place until the end of your divorce.
How to Get Through Your Divorce Hearing with Ease
If you want to get through your divorce court hearing successfully, you must be prepared. That preparation includes knowing how to physically get to the right court room at the right time. (If you’ve never been to court before, it’s not as easy as you might think.) It also includes knowing what to expect in a divorce hearing, and how to conduct yourself appropriately.
Here are some of the things you need to know.
20 Tips to Help You Prepare For (and Get Through) Your Divorce Hearing
1. Be Smart About What You Take With You To Court.
Most (if not all) courts require you to go through a metal detector before you get into the building. That means that you are not going to be allowed to carry in guns, knives, explosives, and other dangerous weapons into the building. (I once got stopped for carrying in a pair of scissors … and I’m a lawyer!) If you couldn’t get through an airport carrying something, you probably won’t be able to get into a court house with it, either.
2. Know the Court Rules about Cell Phones, Cameras, Purses, Bags, etc., BEFORE you go to Court.
Some courts won’t let you walk in the door with a cell phone if it has a camera in it. (… which is pretty much every cell phone made since 2002.) Others have restrictions on bringing in laptops, bags, food, coffee, and lots of other things you may not have thought about. When you’re already stressed out about going to court, the last thing you want to do is to have to run back to your car to drop off all of the stuff that you can’t bring into court with you. Ask your attorney, or check out the court’s website, about what you are permitted to bring into court before you go there.
3. Get to Court Early
You never know how long it is going to take you to get through security and into your court room. What’s more, sometimes court rooms get changed. (If one judge is sick, all of the cases on his/her call may be transferred to another judge for hearing.) That means you may have to play “musical courtrooms.” Since you don’t know where you’re going, and because judges don’t like it when you’re late, do yourself a favor and get to court early.
4. Expect to Wait
Just because you get to court early doesn’t mean that your case will be heard right away. Unless your case has been specially set for a hearing at a time when no other case is scheduled (which is rare) there will be LOTS of other cases set for hearing at the exact same time as yours. The judge may go through all of the cases that just need status dates or quick decisions first, and then do the hearings. Or, the judge may go through each case in the order listed on the court call. When your case is called depends on how your judge manages his/her court call. So don’t assume that you will get out of court in any less than a half day – ever.
When you go to court you need to show a little respect. Your clothes should be neat, clean and pressed. Don’t wear anything provocative or weird. If you have a bunch of tattoos and piercings, cover them up. Yes, you have the right to express yourself through what you wear. And, of course, the judge is supposed to decide your case based upon what you say and do, not what you wear. But judges are human too! Be smart. When in doubt, dress like you would if you were going to church with your grandmother. (If you wonder what is okay to wear in court, check out Dressing for Success: What to Wear to Court.)
6. Don’t Be Surprised if Your Case Gets Continued
Hearings and trials get continued all the time. Even if your case has been set for a hearing, that doesn’t mean it will really take place. Court calls, like airlines, are always overbooked. Most of the time, enough cases fold that the judge actually has time to hear the cases that need hearings. But sometimes, everything that was set to go is ready to go, and needs to go. If no other judge is available to pinch hit, someone gets bumped. That’s just the way the system works.
7. Hearings are Time-Limited
Most of the time, judges allot a certain period of time for certain hearings. Your divorce hearing may get an hour or two. Or it may get a half hour or less. Occasionally, divorce hearings may be conducted for days. But that’s rare. So it’s critical that your lawyer presents the most important, relevant evidence and law in a very short time. The exact evidence and arguments that will be the most important in your case will depend upon the issues you are presenting to the court. Your lawyer will know what documentation you will need to prove your case. Make sure to check with your divorce lawyer in advance so that you bring all of the documentation you need when you go to court.
8. Not Everything You Care About is Legally Significant
When you are going through a divorce and your heart is like a throbbing piece of raw meat, it’s easy to over-react to the stupid things your spouse does. When that happens, you will be tempted to call your lawyer in a panic, demanding your day in court. The problem is that a lot of things that you find to be completely unacceptable have absolutely no legal significance. So either your lawyer will try to talk you out of running to the judge about those issues, or s/he will let you run up your legal bill going to court for hearings you are almost guaranteed to lose. Either way, it will seem to you that your spouse is “getting away” with all kinds of craziness. Maybe s/he is. But, if you’re smart, you will pick your battles wisely.
9. The Judge May Try to Resolve Your Issue Without a Hearing
Some judges will try to see if they can settle your issues before your lawyers dive into a full-blown hearing. If that happens, you may be asked to compromise whatever issue you are presenting to the court. Since settling on your own gives you much more certainty about what will happen in your case then letting the judge decide your issues however s/he sees fit, settling is almost always our best choice (unless your spouse is being completely unreasonable). But, settlement conferences take time. So, if the judge holds a settlement conference, and you don’t settle your issues, you may not have time to finish your hearing. In that case, you will have to come back to court for your divorce hearing again.
10. Understand That The Lawyers and the Judge are Colleagues
It can be unnerving when you are in court and you hear your lawyer and your spouse’s lawyer laughing with the judge behind closed doors (or even in open court!). It seems disrespectful to you and to what you’re going through. What you may not realize is that the lawyers and the judges work together all the time. They may not be “friends,” but they probably have had many cases together. That’s actually a good thing. If your lawyer and your spouse’s lawyer hate each other, they will fight tooth and nail over every little thing. Meanwhile, you will pay for that fight. You don’t need that. So when you see or hear the lawyers laughing while you are desperately trying not to fall apart in the middle of the court room, don’t take it personally. Really, it’s not about you.
11. Real Court is Not Like TV
Going to court is one of the most stressful yet anti-climactic events you will ever experience. The lawyers and the judge speak in language you only sort of understand. Most of the time, you don’t get to talk. You never get to tell your story. You’re not sure what’s going on. Then, suddenly, the entire hearing is over and the clerk is calling the next case! The end result is that, even if you “win” your hearing, you’re probably going to leave the court room feeling empty and confused. Of course, if you lose, you’ll be angry too.
12. Be Prepared to See (and Maybe Sit Next to) Your Spouse
It’s one thing to know in your head that you will see your spouse in court. It’s quite another to be sitting next to him or her five minutes before you are about to be locked in battle over some issue that you find enormously upsetting. If you can get to court early and find a spot that’s far away from your STBX, that can help. Meanwhile, do your best to keep your cool. It also helps if you interact with your spouse as little as possible while you are in court.
13. Do Your Best Not to React to Your Spouse
When your spouse (or your spouse’s lawyer) is talking in court, control yourself! Don’t roll your eyes, sigh, or interrupt and scream, “That’s not true!” Your credibility and demeanor are important. If the judge feels that you are being disruptive or disrespectful the judge will weigh that against you. If you feel that your spouse is lying, quietly pass a note to your lawyer telling him/her exactly what is untrue. Your lawyer can cross examine your spouse at the appropriate time. Finally, wait until it’s your turn to talk. Remember, your hearing time is limited. The more you interrupt, the more time you waste.
14. If You Testify, Stay on Point
When you finally get a chance to testify, you may get the urge to tell the judge everything. Don’t do it! Launching into a long-winded story filled with irrelevant details will either bore or aggravate the judge. Remember, you don’t have all day to tell your story. Only answer the questions that you are asked. Keep your answers short. Don’t volunteer information. While you may not get the emotional satisfaction of having been able to “tell your story,” you probably will present a much more legally compelling case.
15. Don’t Make Stuff Up!
When someone asks us a question we don’t know the answer to, many times we give that person the answer we think they want to hear. We don’t mean to lie. We just don’t want to disappoint the questioner. So, we guess at what we think the answer “should” be, even when we don’t have the foggiest idea of what the answer is. Don’t do that when you’re testifying! If someone asks you a question and you don’t know the answer, say, “I don’t know.” If you’re nervous and can’t recall something, admit, “I can’t recall that.” Finally, if you don’t understand the question, say, “I don’t understand what you’re asking.” Never, ever make up an answer. Period.
16. Answer the Question
When a lawyer asks you a question, answer it! Don’t play dumb! Don’t beat around the bush and pretend you don’t understand something that is patently obvious. Your credibility is an important element of your case. If the judge doesn’t believe a thing you say, you’re toast. So, don’t try to be smart and avoid answering tough questions. It’s much better to admit the truth, even when it’s hard. In the long run, that will get you much farther than pretending that the only thing you can remember when you’re on the witness stand is your name.
17. Don’t Argue With Your Spouse’s Lawyer
When your spouse’s lawyer is trying to make you look bad, it’s natural to want to defend yourself. That’s exactly what your spouse’s lawyer is counting on. S/he is trying to make you lose your cool. When you do, you’re more likely to say things in anger that you will regret. You’re also much more likely to blurt out information you never meant to say. In short, when you argue with your spouse’s lawyer you have everything to lose, and very little to gain.
18. The Judge (or Hearing Officer) Will Make a Decision Based Upon the Evidence Presented
Hearings are always based on limited information. Judges (and hearing officers) can only decide cases based upon the law and the evidence presented to them. If certain evidence is not presented at the hearing, it doesn’t count. The problem is that, since you only have a limited time to present evidence, it’s almost impossible to get everything put before the judge in the limited time allotted to you. That’s why settling your case is usually smarter than letting the judge decide it. Rarely, if ever, do you get to tell the judge your entire story.
19. Losing a Hearing Hurts, But It’s Not the End of the World
Temporary court orders are exactly what they sound like – temporary. If the judge has issued a ruling you disagree with, you may have another chance to present your arguments at trial. Based upon the facts at that time, the judge may make a different ruling. That having been said, temporary rulings are still extremely important, especially on issues like child custody (i.e. decision-making responsibility) and parenting time arrangements. Once your child’s schedule with you and your spouse has been set, it can become set in stone. If your child appears to be doing well with a parenting schedule that has been in place for many months (or years) it may be difficult to get a judge to change that schedule at trial.
20. The Judge’s Ruling at a Hearing Usually Stands Until Your Divorce is Over
Once you’ve had your hearing and the judge has ruled, you will have to live with the judge’s decision for some length of time – usually until your case is tried or resolved. Of course, like everything else in the law, that “rule” isn’t absolute. Sometimes you can get the judge to reconsider his/her ruling. Sometimes circumstances change so the ruling can be revisited. Still other times the judge will include a time limit within his/her ruling (e.g. the judge may order you to pay spousal support for x months, after which time the judge will revisit the issue). Finally, you and your spouse can both decide that you want to do something other than what the judge ordered. In that case, you may be able to jointly ask the judge to modify his/her order based upon your agreement.
Getting Through Your Divorce Hearing With Ease
Let’s be honest. There is nothing “easy” about going to divorce court. Divorce hearings are stressful and full of uncertainty. But, if you’re careful, and you prepare well, you can get through them successfully.
That doesn’t mean that you are guaranteed to win every hearing you have. Even if you have the best lawyer on the planet, that just doesn’t happen.
But, if you understand how divorce hearings work, and you take these tips to heart, you stand a much better chance of getting through your divorce court hearing with confidence and maybe even a little bit of class.
Another thing that can help you understand what you need in your divorce, as well as your divorce hearing, is a checklist. (HINT: Lawyers use them all the time!)
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