Going through a divorce is one of the most stressful events in a person's life. And, if you and your spouse have minor children, the divorce process becomes more complex. If you are contemplating divorce, or your spouse has filed for divorce, you probably have a number of questions running through your mind - how will our property be divided? Will one of us have to move out of the house? Will I have to pay alimony? Who will have custody of our kids? Will I have to pay child support?
While there are a number of different issues that have to be addressed in a divorce or child custody case, the procedure is relatively uniform. If you and your spouse have no minor children in common, your case gets assigned to a judge in the Family Division of the Circuit Court, and is usually scheduled for pretrial and trial dates. The Court can enter a judgment of divorce as soon as 60 days have passed since the date of the filing of the divorce complaint (although it doesn't necessarily have to be finalized that soon). Chances are, if you haven't been married very long and don't have much property and debt to divide, it likely wont take too long to finalize your divorce. Conversely, if you and your spouse have been married for a number of years and have accumulated substantial property and/or debt, the "discovery" process will likely take some time and the case will take longer to litigate.
As mentioned above, having minor children adds another component to the divorce process. Once the complaint is filed, the case gets referred to the "Friend of the Court," which is a division of the Court that deals with matters involving child custody, parenting time, and support. Most courts use an initial procedure called a "conciliation conference," where you and your spouse appear at court to talk with a conciliator (some courts use the terms "investigation"/"investigator"). This conference is usually very informal and does not take place in a courtroom, but rather an office or conference room. The conference is not recorded, there is no judge present, and the parties do not take testimony like a more formal court hearing. The idea is that the conciliator wants to hear from the parties as to what they want in terms of child custody, parenting time, and child support (and sometimes spousal support, if appropriate). If the parties can agree on these issues, the conciliator will then prepare a stipulated order that will get entered with the Court, and will dictate the custody/parenting time/support while the divorce case is pending. If, however, the parties cannot agree on these issues, the conciliator will issue a recommendation, indicating which party or parties will have physical and legal custody of the child(ren), who will pay support and what amount should be paid per month.
If a party disagrees with the recommendation, he or she can file an objection to the recommendation, but beware - the time frame for filing an objection is short. If an objection is filed, then the matter is scheduled for a hearing either before a referee or the judge assigned to the case. In either event, the referee hearing or hearing before the judge is a formal, traditional type of court hearing - the hearing is recorded, attorneys will be present (if the parties have attorneys) and the rules of evidence apply.
Because of the nature of the Friend of the Court process and objection procedure described above, it can be very beneficial to be represented by an attorney throughout your divorce or child custody case. A good attorney will ensure that you are receiving the custody/parenting time/child support/spousal support/property allocation that you are entitled to under the law. And, even if you don't have minor children, an attorney can help you strategically plan from the onset of the divorce case. In some instances it may be appropriate that one party remain in the marital home while the spouse finds temporary living arrangements. Or perhaps you are concerned that your spouse will start hiding property or spending money if a divorce filing is impending. An attorney can help you take immediate action and obtain relief through available court procedures.
The discussion above talks specifically about divorce cases, however, "family law" encompasses a number of different legal issues. For example, if you have a minor child but were never married to the other parent, a child custody/parenting time/ support action action will follow a similar Friend of the Court process described previously. Generally, family law issues include, but are not limited to:
- Divorce without minor children
- Divorce with minor children
- Establishing child custody/parenting time/child support when not married to the other parent
- modifying child custody/parenting time/child support
- Change in domicile
- Spousal support/alimony
- separate maintenance
- Establishing/revoking paternity
- Personal protection orders
- Abuse and neglect proceedings (child protective services)
If you have questions about divorce, child custody, or any other family law issue, give us a call or schedule a free consultation.