This is an outline of the general steps in a typical family law case such as divorce (dissolution) or parentage (unmarried parents). The process is described from the perspective of the person who is starting the case. Every case is different and this is provided as an overview. Your case may have more or fewer steps.
Starting the case
The case (lawsuit) begins when the petitioner (the person filing the case) goes to court and files a petition and summons against the respondent (the person being sued). The petition explains what the petitioner wants the court to order, e.g., custody of children, child support award, division of property in a divorce, etc. The summons tells the respondent that a lawsuit has been filed and when a response to the petition must be made. The petition and summons open a court file and begin the lawsuit. Additional documents will be needed depending on the type of case and the specific requests made.
In most situations the documents that begin a lawsuit must be personally served on the respondent. If certain circumstances are met, the petitioner can request that the court allow alternative service such as mailing the papers to the respondent or publishing notice of the lawsuit in the newspaper. See the serving court documents page for more information.
If the two parties have worked together to agree on the issues in their case, they may file a joint petition. Instead of both a petition and summons that are served on the respondent, both parties do the petition together, and the second party signs a 'joinder' indicating agreement with the requests in the petition. There is a section at the end of the petition that can be signed by the respondent if they want to join the petition, or a separate joinder form can be signed instead.
Requesting temporary and immediate emergency orders
It takes time for the case to make its way through the court system before final orders can be issued.
If a party wants orders to be in place while the case is moving through the process, they can request temporary orders. These orders can address the people or property involved in the case, e.g., use of the home, establishment of a parenting plan, etc. These are issued after a hearing has been held and both sides have been given the opportunity to be heard. Temporary orders expire when the final orders are issued.
If there are urgent situations that are time-sensitive, a party can ask for immediate emergency (ex parte) orders. These orders can address the people and the property in the case, e.g., emergency custody of a child, a restraining order to prevent a party from going to the home or daycare, etc. These are requested without the other party being present, and are effective only for a short time. They are intended to cover the time period between the case being filed and when a hearing for temporary orders is held.
Temporary and immediate emergency orders are optional additions to a family law case.
Attending a hearing
As your case progresses through the court system you may need to attend a hearing. Hearings are brief, formal court proceedings. They are often held for temporary orders or procedural issues that come up while the case is going through the court process. They are designed to resolve a specific question before a full court trial on all of the issues occurs. Trials are where the final decision is made and the parties present all of their evidence. This is somewhat similar to appetizers versus the main course.
Waiting for a response
Unless the two parties have filed the case together, the petitioner is required to wait for a response from the other party. The respondent (the person being sued) has a limited number of days (usually 20) to file a response to the petition along with other documents that may be needed. The response tells the petitioner and the court what the two parties agree and disagree about.
If the respondent does not respond to the case by the time limit, the petitioner can ask the court for an order of default. This means that the petitioner can get a court order giving them whatever they requested in the petition because the respondent didn’t act.
Collecting evidence (discovery)
After a lawsuit is filed, both parties can use various methods to gather information about the case. A variety of tools can be used to investigate the facts and the other side's position, and gather information to help move towards settlement or prepare for trial.
See the collecting evidence (discovery) page for more information.
Reaching a settlement versus going to trial
After both parties have filed and served their documents it is up to the parties to try to come to an agreement (reach a settlement). If they do, they proceed to the documents to finalize their case and the court can issue final orders to reflect their agreement.
If the parties do not agree it may be possible to have a settlement conference with a judge to help resolve issues. A judge’s perspective can be helpful for parties to learn what is realistic for their situation.
If the parties cannot reach a settlement, the lawsuit will proceed to trial. Family law trials are generally held in front of a judge rather than a jury. The parties are responsible for filing the paperwork necessary to tell the court that they need to schedule a trial and are ready to proceed.
See the preparing for trial page for more information.
Going to trial
If the parties do not reach a settlement, they can schedule a case for trial. The basic trial process includes:
- Each party offering an opening statement, explaining their side of the case.
- Each side presenting its evidence, and calling witnesses to testify. The petitioner goes first.
- Each side has the opportunity to question witnesses called by the other side (this is called cross-examination).
- Each side offering a closing argument after all the testimony and evidence has been presented.
- The judge considers all the information and makes a decision.
See the during a trial page for more information.
An Informal Family Law Trial (IFLT) is an alternative to a more formal trial. Information about that process and a comparison of the difference between an informal and a formal family law trial is in State Court General Rules GR 40.
Finalizing the case
After a case has finished, the judge will sign final orders that show the court's official decision. They would include a resolution of all of the issues in the case. The parties should prepare these for the judge to sign. Once the final orders are signed and entered into the file, along with any other documents needed, the case is resolved.
Appealing a decision
Even though a case has been finalized, it is possible to appeal a judge’s decision or ask for a “revision” of a court commissioner’s decision within a certain timeframe. A case should not be thought of as completely done until the time period for this has passed. There usually must be a legal basis for the appeal -- an alleged material error in the trial and not just the fact that the losing party didn't agree with the verdict.
See the appealing a decision page for more information.
Modifying a final order
If circumstances change, it is possible to ask to have the final orders modified for things such as child custody or child support. For example, if the parties were divorced five years ago and since then both people have new jobs with different incomes, and the children’s needs have changed, a party can file a new petition asking to have the child support modified to reflect those changes. Modifications are essentially a new case and would go through this process all over again.
See the modification page for more information.