Going to court in California divorce: Judges are people, too!

We learn that the law is blind, and images of lady justice come to mind when we think of the legal system…right? Well, maybe not all of us.

Most family law attorneys will tell you that decisions on family law issues depend heavily on which county you are in and even which courtroom (in front of which judge). You may think that this is unfair, that judges should apply the law uniformly. But I disagree – this is perfectly natural.

The whole reason we have the legal system is that reasonable people can disagree on many issues. Because of this, we need help in the form of the legal system and litigation. Judges are part of the legal system, and are bound to apply the law in as neutral way as possible. But the law is not always clear enough to apply totally neutrally.

Take this as an example: Parents live in neighboring cities, and each wants their child to attend the school in their neighborhood. The judge is charged with making this decision, and the standard is that the court should act – that is, pick the school – in the best interest of the child. How does the judge make this decision? Judges can look at where the child has gone to school in the past (to avoid disrupting the child’s schedule and established friends), can look to which school is objectively ‘better’ in terms of test scores and the like. The judge can look to see to which parent the child seems more bonded (and thus would be harmed by not being with that parent for school). The judge can look to where the child’s support system – other family members, friends, teachers, church, etc. – are.

But these factors are subjective, to at least a certain extent, and different judges will base their decisions on their own beliefs and experience on which are most important. For example, a judge who just read an article about the critical importance of an extended support system to a child may put more weight on that factor than a judge who hasn’t seen the article.

Similarly, judges are going to have their own opinions on various family law issues. They may tend to weigh certain factors more heavily than others, or tend to rule one way or another. This doesn’t mean that the judge is bad or biased, it just means that the judge is human.

So, what can you do about it? Look, and learn. Attend your judge’s hearings – they’re public! – and see how he or she tends to rule, how he or she runs the courtroom, and what arguments, attitudes, and styles seem to be the most persuasive.

Knowledge is power.

Your family law hearing in California divorce: child custody, child visitation, child support, spousal support, attorney fees…

In most family law cases, one or both parties need the court to help them with initial matters, such as child custody, child visitation, child support, spousal support, and attorney fees.  Because the parties cannot agree on how to handle these matters, a motion is filed with the court, asking the court to make orders on these issues.

After you file your motion with the court, you have to serve it on your opponent. Hopefully, you know that already. Once your opponent receives your motion, he or she has time to file a response. By filing your paperwork in advance, you each have the opportunity to review what the other is saying, and prepare your response to it. This is important because you should never be forced to respond to something about which you do not have advance warning. This goes both ways: you can’t spring something on your opponent and get away with it.

When you get to court on your appointed day and time, remember the following:

1. Get there early to allow yourself to get lost (and find it), to get the layout of the place, and to have time to get settled and take a deep breath.
2. Read the signs posted in and around the courtroom, as these will give you a lot of information about what is going to happen and the specific court’s procedures. Determine which notes apply to you and act accordingly.
3. Take a deep breath and try to relax. You may be waiting a long time.
4. You will probably have the check in and let the court know you are present. Often you check in and give your name (and sometimes case number) to the bailiff or the courtroom clerk.
5. Most counties have a rule regarding a “meet and confer” prior to being heard by the judge. This is a requirement that you at least try to talk to your opponent to work out your differences before the judge will hear your dispute. DO NOT avoid this if it is a county rule in your county, as it will anger the judge that you ignored the rule – and do it even if there is no rule. Making the judge mad is a big no-no in my book.
6. When your case is called, announce your name and approach the tables in front of the judge. You’ll get an opportunity to present your side of the argument, and it’s helpful if you have notes responding to what your opponent is going to say. You know what your opponent is going to say because you read his or her paperwork and also talked to him or her immediately prior to the hearing.
7. Don’t make the judge mad. If he or she cautions you because you have done or said something inappropriate, be sure NOT to repeat your error. One thing that makes most judges mad: interrupting. If you have something to say, find the right time to say it rather than interrupting your opponent or the judge.
8. Once the judge has heard enough, she or he will say so and announce the order. THIS IS WHAT YOU CAME FOR! Take detailed notes because you will need to create a written order from the judge’s words.
9. Before you leave, ask the court for the “Minute Order,” which is the court’s informal notes of the results of the hearing. You can use this to prepare the order. Also, find out which party is preparing the order. Whoever brought the motion generally does this.
10. Thank the judge as you leave, whether you won or lost. Judges work hard and deserve your thanks for taking their time to help you. You may not like their decision, but thank them anyway.

Trying to prove your ex is crazy? It all starts with you

It’s not infrequent that I have a client who says their ex is completely crazy.  Often they are correct, though just as often my client also has a little bit of the crazy – after all, they were married!  In truth, everyone is a little crazy, at least on occasion, in a divorce.  The key is tempering it when you need to, which is something not everyone can do.

When you’re trying to prove to the judge or court that your ex is the one who is making up lies, exaggerating, and generally trying to hurt you and/or drag your name through the mud, you have to keep several things in mind or you will not be successful.

  1. The judge has a very limited time with you, so s/he has to make quick decisions based on very little information.  The judge, remember, knows nothing about you, your ex, your past, your history, or anything other than what is before the court and what you manage to convey in a short hearing.
  2. Most examples and instances of unreasonable behavior are difficult, if not impossible to prove because there is no outside evidence and it comes down to he said-she said.  The judge has no idea who to believe in those circumstances, so it’s up to you to prove that you are the credible one.
  3. When you start before the court, you and your ex are on equal footing.  If you want to show that your ex is unreasonable, then you have to work extra hard to appear as reasonable as you possibly can.  If you both act unreasonably, then the judge puts you both in the same category, so your pleas that your ex is really the one with the problem will fall on deaf ears.
  4. Proving you are credible, and thus the one to be believed, can be harder than you think it is.  You have to be absolutely truthful with the court – which means no half-truths, no misleading comments, and being up-front and providing relevant information when appropriate, even if not asked.  It also means following ALL – yes, all – court orders to the letter, even if you don’t like them, don’t want to, or are trying to bury your head in the sand, hoping it will go away.
  5. If you are able to do all of these things, and convince the judge that you are the one that is credible, reasonable, and responsible, then you can start to make headway against your unreasonable ex.
  6. If you fail to show the judge that you are reasonable, then it takes far longer to dig yourself out of the hole with the judge than it would have to just behave in the first place.

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