What Happens in Divorce Court?

by Beverly Bird

If you're headed for divorce court, you might be a bundle of nerves about facing the unknown. While worrying about the outcome might be warranted, the actual legal process is structured and orderly, and it doesn't have to be intimidating. Different proceedings have varying protocols.

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Temporary Hearings

You might end up in court sooner than you expect if either you or your spouse file a motion for temporary relief, asking the court for an order to govern things like payment of bills or custody until your divorce is final. These hearings are usually much more abbreviated than divorce trials. No one gives testimony; the judge will base his decision on written submissions you or your attorney give him in advance. The judge might have a few questions for you, but you generally don't have to take the witness stand -- you can usually answer from your seat. If you don't have an attorney, you might have to stand up to orally explain what you're asking for and why you think the judge should order it. Normally, however, your lawyer would do this, repeating the information provided in your written submission. The hearing shouldn't take more than 15 minutes or so, but it might run longer.

Opening Statements

A divorce trial is the granddaddy of all court appearances, and it is much more involved. You're asking the court to decide permanent solutions to issues, not just temporary terms subject to change when your divorce is final. If you're the spouse who filed for divorce, you or your attorney get to go first. You will present your opening argument, explaining what you're asking for and detailing how you will prove to the court that the judge should grant your requests. Your spouse or her attorney will do the same thing. In some states, they have the option of waiting to present their opening argument later in the proceedings.

Testimony and Evidence

After opening arguments at trial, you can present your evidence. This might take the form of witness testimony or tangible exhibits, such as documents you want the judge to review. Your spouse or her attorney can question your exhibits and cross-examine your witnesses before presenting her evidence and testimony -- then you or your attorney may question her witnesses and try to refute her evidence as well. Sometimes the lawyer for the defendant – the spouse who did not file for divorce – will wait and make his opening statements at this phase of the trial, just before presenting his case. This whole process can take a few hours or it may stretch on for days, depending on the complexity of your divorce.

Closing Arguments

At the end of trial, you or your attorney can make closing arguments, summarizing your case, highlighting all the proof and testimony you offered. You get to make one last, impassioned plea for the court to rule your way. Your spouse or her lawyer will do the same. Some states may allow you to submit closing arguments in written form, a few weeks after the trial. Because divorces usually involve multiple issues, such as custody, property and support, the judge probably will not announce his verdict right away. He'll want time to read over the court transcripts and review your evidence. Generally, you will receive written notice of his verdict, along with a copy of your divorce decree, several weeks or months later.

Uncontested Divorces

If you and your spouse reach an agreement regarding all aspects of your divorce, you won't have to go to trial. You'll have an uncontested hearing instead, which is significantly less formal. You'll probably be sworn in, but then the judge or your lawyer will just ask you a few questions to establish certain information for the court record. These questions might include confirmation that you understand the terms of your settlement agreement, that you signed it willingly and that you're prepared to abide by its terms.