In an effort to increase the number of divorces resolved before trial, states have implemented Early Resolution Conferences or ERCs. In an ERC, parties to a divorce meet with either a panel of attorneys, judge or court official to present their side of a divorce case in an effort to reach a settlement before trial. They are also called settlement conferences or pretrial conferences. Each state has its own set of procedures and rules that cover timing of providing documents, length of the conference, and what can be presented.
Contact the clerk of court in your jurisdiction and get specific information on how ERCs are handled. Generally, a judge or a panel of attorneys with experience in family law will provide you with a settlement recommendation after listening to the facts of your case. The panel or judge will also want to view any relevant case law and other documents that might be relevant. The recommendation is nonbinding, which means that you can reject it and go to trial.
Exchange relevant information with your spouse during the process known as discovery. During the discovery phase, your spouse is required to provide you with various types of documentary evidence. This can include bank and investment account information, debts, assets, retirement information, medical and work records, and any other information pertinent to your case. Select key documents to bring to the pretrial hearing.
Research case law that is relevant to the facts of your case. Most states will have online sites where you can find state statutes and state court family law decisions. If you are in a state where you have to prepare a case brief or position memorandum before the conference, you will need to put any relevant case law in your brief or memorandum that supports your position on issues like custody, asset and debt distribution, and alimony.
Prepare your case brief or memorandum. The best way to do this is to first outline the facts of your case. Next, present what you want from the divorce and the case law that supports what you want. Finally, place any of the documents that you received during discovery in a logical order so you can present them as you discuss your case. Having information tabbed can help you find what you need quickly. This is a great way to cut down on any nervousness you may feel during the conference.
Listen to the settlement recommendation of the panel or judge. Once you and your spouse present the two sides of the argument, the panel or judge will take the information into consideration and issue a settlement recommendation. The settlement recommendation is an objective opinion from a professional, or group of professionals, who have experience in family law. Make sure to pay attention to their comments; they will give you insight into the strengths and weaknesses of your argument and that of your spouse.
Decide whether you want to negotiate with your spouse based on the recommendation or abandon the settlement and go to trial. Be aware that the outcome of a trial will more than likely mirror the conference recommendation. Additionally, if any new information comes to light, it may affect the final decision.
Get divorced. If, after negotiations, you and your spouse reach an agreement, certain states will enter an order ending your marriage right there. In others, a settlement agreement will be drawn up and subsequently signed by the judge. A date for the final judgment will normally be set soon after the conference.