If you are reading this, you are likely experiencing anxiety over your family and future, what this experience is going to cost you, both financially and emotionally. This chapter is meant to be a general overview of how most family law cases go. Obviously, your situation is unique and this is not meant to cover every single situation, nor is it meant to be a guaranteed promise of how your case will unfold. Rather, this is intended to give you a brief overview of how most family law cases unfold once they reach the courts.
The hope is that by reading this you will have some indication of what to expect from your case rather than being in the dark. It should be noted, again, that there are numerous outcomes to your case, the direction of which may not be entirely in your control as your spouse may affect things in unforeseen ways.
To begin with, a divorce document must be filed in court. This is called a petition. A petition is the first document that is filed and it states the basics of your case, such as who you are, where you were married, and other basic information. This document has to be served on your spouse and filed with the court. For a document to be effectively served, it must be handed to them by someone other than you—it could be anyone but you and proof of this service on your spouse has to be filed with the court. Along with this document, you must file and serve other documents that may pertain to your case, such as a plan that spells out how your children will be parented, how spousal support will be paid, and how child support will be paid and how much.
Once your spouse receives these documents, they will have the opportunity to respond with their own documents, which may or may not agree with what you have stated. These documents also must be served on you and filed with the court. Since the trial is the ultimate outcome of your case and since the trial is usually a year or so off from when you file your court documents, you may have an urgent matter that needs to be addressed and decided by the court. For example, your spouse may be demanding to see your daughter or son, which you do not want. In order to have this resolved, your only option is to go to court to seek a temporary order, which will last until your trial.
If you do not have an urgent matter such as this, then your case will proceed to what is called the discovery stage. This is an exchange of information to figure out what your assets are, what witnesses you plan to call at trial, and other related information. The discovery stage is simply meant to be a dress rehearsal before trial so each side knows and is aware of what documents and information the other spouse plans to give to the judge at trial.
The discovery stage consists of either exchanging written questions and answers or sitting down with a lawyer for depositions, which are in-person questions and answers with a court reporter present, who will type everything that is said and which can later be printed out. Obviously, if you and your spouse know everything about the other’s financial situation, parenting, and witnesses, or if it appears a settlement is easy to come to, you won’t have to go to all the trouble of this. The discovery stage is only necessary when you and your spouse are not being honest with each other about key things such as finances or you don’t have an agreement on how parenting should go with your children.
Once discovery is complete, you will likely either come to a resolution or you will complete what is called mediation. Mediation is done when a lawyer or retired judge agrees to try to hammer out a deal between you and your spouse. This usually takes either half a day or a full day, depending on how many issues there are and how complex the divorce is. The vast majority of cases end here. If the case is not finished at mediation, then the case will proceed to trial, where either a judge or a jury will hear your case.
Washington is the only state that allows a jury to decide family law matters such as divorce. Normally, a judge decides the fate of your case. A trial can last as little as a day or as long as two weeks. While you may get a trial date of, for example, January 3 when you file your court document, it’s not guaranteed your trial will actually be held on that date. It is possible that the judge or the attorneys, including your own, will have a conflict and the trial will be pushed back.
In any event, at some point your trial will occur, at the end of which your case will be over and whatever the judge or jury decides becomes binding. If you are not happy with the outcome, or if your spouse disagrees with some part of it, an appeal can be filed by either party. The appeal is a constitutional right each spouse has. When an appeal happens, the court of appeals, which is made up of three judges, agrees to read the trial, which is printed off by the court reporter, who was present at trial. Within six months to a year, the judges from the court of appeals will issue a decision.
Appeals are very rare, but they do happen. If you lose the appeal or if your spouse loses the appeal, that may not be the end of the ordeal. Sometime after your divorce, either you or your spouse has the option to file what is called a modification. This modification can be for anything from the amount of child support paid to the time you see your children. Again, modifications are rare, but more common than appeals.
To briefly summarize the process: you or your spouse will file and serve the initial court documents, complete discovery in the form of written questions or a sit-down question and answer with an attorney, mediate your differences, and finally go to trial and let a judge or jury decide the issues in your case. Again, there is no telling when or along which pitstop, so to speak, your case will stop, but it will go through this process.