A preliminary divorce hearing is your first appearance before a judge after filing for divorce. Unless you and your spouse agree on everything, the judge does not typically make rulings at this hearing. Instead, it is used for basic scheduling and to explain the procedures of the family court in your area. State laws vary substantially and some states use preliminary hearings to encourage or order mediation. Others conduct preliminary hearings in front of a judicial officer or mediator rather than a judge. Because family law is complicated and you will need someone to represent your interests if you and your spouse disagree on custody, child support and division of property, consider hiring a divorce attorney before going to your preliminary hearing.
Preliminary hearings are typically scheduled shortly after you file for divorce. In some states, the hearing must occur 30 days after the filing if there is a child custody dispute, while in other states the hearing date depends on the court calendar. You will likely discuss scheduling matters regarding future hearings, mediation or arbitration at the hearing, and the judge may give you instructions for attending a divorcing parents' seminar or other state-mandated divorce classes. You must attend all scheduled hearings and mediation.
Discovery and Experts
At many preliminary hearings, a discovery schedule is established. Discovery is the phase of litigation during which one side gains information about the other through interrogatories, depositions and requests for production of documents -- for example, financial records. The judge will set a period of time for discovery and may establish the scope of items you can ask for from your spouse. If there are any disputes about what is discoverable, these may be addressed in the hearing. If you are fighting over custody, a guardian ad litem may be appointed to advocate for the best interests of your child. You or your spouse may name the expert witnesses you plan to use, and the judge may also ask for a list of witnesses you will use if your case goes to trial.
If there are any urgent matters in your case, the judge may enter a temporary order. Protective orders are often signed during preliminary hearings. The judge may also order temporary child support arrangements or visitation schedules until a settlement is reached or the case goes to trial. Judges often enter standard orders requiring neither partner to move, hide assets, sell a house or engage in other practices that could endanger the other spouse's rights.
A motion is a pleading filed by one party requesting the judge to enter an order. Typically these orders require the other party to do -- or not do -- something. The parties may file preliminary motions at preliminary hearings. For example, one spouse might make a motion to compel the other spouse to provide the child's medical records.
State divorce rules vary greatly, and some states have established family court procedures that require mediation or the completion of seminars. For example, in Georgia, all divorcing parents are required to attend a divorcing parents seminar and mediation if there is a custody dispute. If there are any specific non-judicial proceedings you must attend, these will be addressed at your preliminary hearing. Judges often use the preliminary hearing as an opportunity to encourage parties to settle their disputes.