Preparation for a divorce proceeding, whether it be a temporary orders hearing or final trial, is essential in any divorce case. Many times showing up prepared for a hearing, even though you are pretty sure the case will settle in the court, means a better result for a client. There have been numerous times where you ask for a continuance and the judge denies the request. There are also times where a settlement negotiation fails and you will end up having to try the case. If you show up prepared for a hearing, you will not be caught in a lurch in the event you have to go in front of the judge. Here are some tips to prep for your hearing.
1. Get all of your financial records in order. Most family courts have local rules which indicate what you absolutely must have with you during any hearings. The most important rule, especially in divorces with children’s issues, is the exchange of financial information. These local rules are almost always available online and you can look them up and read them. In Harris County, you can look up each court on the following website: http://www.justex.net. Usually, you will need at the minimum the last two paycheck stubs of the parties, last few months bank accounts, and last two years tax returns. You need to fill out and have ready a financial information statement for the Court to review your financial situation, including your income and expenses. When you fill out the statement, make sure you are as thorough and honest as possible when you state what your bills are. You should also have copies of credit card statements. Bank records are extremely important if a party owns their own business or is an independent contractor without a normal W-2 salary. These financial information statements, or FIS, are also usually available in the courtroom.
2. Make Copies, Make Copies, Make Copies. It is imperative you have a copy of the exhibits you plan to use in your hearing for every party involved. That would mean a copy for each party or their lawyer, a copy for the witness, and a copy for the judge. I also typically have an extra copy of each exhibit just in case. That would mean, for a divorce with two parties, five copies of each exhibit. There is no such thing as overkill when it comes to exhibits. Judges will appreciate having a copy for themselves.
3. Make sure you know the local rules of the Court. Some courts require parenting classes. Some courts require mediation before temporary orders hearings. Some courts require appointments of amicus attorneys in child custody proceedings. You need to read the local rules to make sure you know what the Judge in your Court wants from you.
4. Keep your witness count low. Many people make the mistake of thinking if I bring it a large volume of people that say you are a good person or parent then you can sway the judge one way or the other. The fact is that the courts are overflowed and backlogged with cases. You probably only have that Judge’s attention for a short period of time. Judges get upset whenever you bring numerous witnesses that say the same thing. For temporary orders, pick one or two fact witnesses that are the best for your case and use them only in addition to the parties and any experts.
5. Answer the questions you are asked and only those questions. When you are being cross examined, your answers should be short and succinct. Trying to explain a yes or no question during cross examination will result in an objection for nonresponsive, which will make you upset, and will upset the judge as well. Save your explanation for your direct or case in chief, not for cross examination.
6. Make sure your pleadings are on file and you properly noticed any hearings to all parties involved. If you are modifying an Attorney General order, make sure they are noticed as well. Read Rule 21a of the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure for how to properly notice parties. The worst thing you can do is prepare for a case, have yourself and all your witnesses take time off to go down to court with you, and you cannot proceed because of lack of proper notice.
7. Know your rules of evidence. The most important rule to know is the hearsay rule and its exceptions. Many times, being able to keep evidence out is more important than getting evidence in.
8. Get a good lawyer. Anyone can represent themselves, but the Court will treat you like you are a lawyer and will expect you to know the law and the rules of the Court. A good lawyer will employ a successful strategy for your case and will help you through the process. This is especially important in custody cases or cases where there is a large property division or alimony issues.
Many cases are won in the preparation stage. Being prepared and ready for trial will put you in a better bargaining position. Going in front of the judge prepared will also help you when it comes trying your case and how the judge will treat you during trial. Make sure you show up prepared. Like the old saying goes “Don’t bring a knife into a gun fight!”