While some couples agree on financial and child custody issues in divorce cases, other do not. Sometimes only one issue remains unresolved, sometimes many. Divorce actions in which the spouses cannot come to agreement on all issues are referred to as contested divorces in California and must be taken to trial for resolution by the family court judge.
Contested Divorce Case
Every failure to agree does not make a divorce case contested. In California, either spouse can make the decision to divorce even if the other vehemently opposes the idea. Likewise, if a spouse opposes the relief requested in a divorce petition but fails to file a timely response, the case is not considered contested. For a divorce case to be contested and head to trial, both spouses must have filed pleadings demonstrating a disagreement on the facts or issues of the divorce.
Working Toward Settlement
A divorce trial can be financially costly, since both sides may hire attorneys, and emotionally draining, especially if you have minor children. Mediation is one way to resolve some or all of the outstanding issues. Some courts offer free mediation services where couples hash things out before a trained, neutral person. Other courts offer settlement officer conferences, a type of mediation where both parties can appear with attorneys. Any agreement you can reach outside of court on one or more issues saves you time and money.
Preparing for Trial
Any issues you are not able to resolve with your spouse outside of court must be taken to trial. In many jurisdictions, one of the parties must file a Request for Trial form, advising the court of the types of unresolved issues to be litigated and estimating the time the trial will take. Exchange you final property disclosure documents 45 days before your first trial date. Some courts order a settlement conference before trial; you are required to file a settlement conference statement describing the unresolved issues and appear at the time and place set. You may wish to retain an attorney to represent you at trial even if you have represented yourself in the divorce up to this point.
In California, you can ask the court for a separate trial limited to one or several unresolved issues. This streamlines the litigation to only the critical issues. Typical issues tried in a separate trial are child custody matters, determination of the date the spouses separated and the validity of a prenuptial agreement. You may use form FL-315, Request for Separate Trial. At the close of a divorce trial, the court issues a judgment of divorce resolving the contested issues including an award of attorney fees, if raised in the filings.