Divorce is a process, and divorce hearings are a critical part of that process.
Here’s an overview of what you need to do to prepare for a divorce hearing. Let’s dive in.
What is a divorce hearing?
A divorce hearing is not the same as a divorce trial. In a divorce journey, it is a stop along the way. It is a procedure to seek clarity about important issues, at least temporarily, until all the terms of a final settlement can be put in place.
Depending on the complexity and nature of your divorce, you may need to attend several hearings from start to finish. Part of this will depend on how much animosity there is between you and your spouse, and what your overall goals are as you transition from married to single.
Hearings allow you to “narrow the issues” so that if a final trial is necessary, several of the issues have already been decided. This creates a certain amount of judicial efficiency.
Judges will make decisions on pressing matters such as temporary visitation and custody, child support, the continuation of health insurance coverage, who gets to stay in the house during divorce, and various other financial issues.
Another critical issue that can be addressed immediately is if one spouse claims there is neglect or abuse taking place in a marriage. A judge can issue a temporary restraining order and put protections in place throughout the divorce process.
Other hearings may be more mundane. They could be related to discovery, scheduling, evidence, and other procedural matters.
Related: Guide to Divorce Discovery from A to Z
How a divorce hearing is conducted
How divorce hearings are conducted will vary to some degree depending on the state, the judge, and the issues that must be decided.
Some courts use hearing officers to handle specific procedural issues. Other courts use judges for all matters.
Regardless of who handles your case, the hearing will be scheduled, and you’ll receive a notification, either directly or through your attorney.
At the court, your case is called. Both spouses and attorneys (if you’re being represented) will step in front of the judge or sit at tables in the front of the courtroom during your hearing.
Sometimes, there is a formal opening statement, official testimony, presentation of exhibits and evidence, and closing statements. However, this is not always the case.
If an attorney represents you, he or she will do most of the talking. The judge may ask you questions, review the evidence, and take testimony from any pertinent witnesses. After the hearing is over, the judge will issue rulings on the issues that were presented. These become legal and binding either temporarily, or until the end of your divorce.
What’s the difference between a divorce hearing and a trial?
There are several similarities between a divorce hearing and a divorce trial, but there are also some noteworthy differences as well.
A divorce hearing will happen at one or more points in your divorce. A divorce trial is what happens at the end of your divorce.
With a hearing, the judge will consider evidence and testimony on one or more aspects of your divorce, perhaps child custody or visitation or temporary alimony, for example. The judge will render a decision on those issues only, removing some of the roadblocks and answering some questions about your divorce.
Rulings issued at hearings may be temporary in many cases. They will stay in place until a trial takes place or the divorce is final. Final judgments often replace the temporary rulings granted at hearings.
A trial will decide all remaining issues and once complete, a judge will grant your divorce, issue a final decree and legally finalize your status.
In some cases, a divorce hearing may take place after a divorce is finalized. This could happen because an ex is seeking a change in the terms of child custody or visitation, or requesting a change in the amount of alimony or child support paid.
What types of issues are addressed at a divorce hearing?
Just about any issue related to separation or divorce is fair game at a divorce hearing. Some of the issues that are considered include:
- Temporary custody
- Temporary child support
- Temporary spousal support
- Protective orders/temporary restraining orders
- Emergency “ex parte” orders
- Issues related to the family home, including who gets to live in the house and who is responsible for paying the bills needed to maintain the house
- Procedural issues or disputes related to discovery, evidence or witnesses
- Contempt of court rulings when court orders are not followed
- Who pays for health insurance
- Who pays for attorney’s fees
- Possible court-ordered mediation
- Possible court-ordered parenting classes
- Dividing retirement accounts through a QDRO (after the divorce)
- Settlement updates
- Trial setting and additional hearings scheduled
Examples of common divorce hearing questions
The questions you or your attorney are asked will vary on what issues are addressed. Judges have a heavy schedule, so don’t expect too many pleasantries to take place before launching into the gist of the hearing.
While it’s impossible to list every question you might be asked, here are some of the more common ones to give you a sense of what to expect.
Please state your name, address, and telephone number for the record.
In cases where harassment, abuse is present, or you fear for your safety in any way, you can tell the judge that you prefer to give alternative information, which may be the contact information for a relative or a friend. Your spouse will be asked to do the same.
How long have you lived in [state and county]?
The judge will ask this because they will need to make sure your case can legally be decided in their jurisdiction.
How long have you lived at your current address?
The same question will be asked of your spouse.
Who is the defendant in this case?
If you filed for the divorce, then you are the plaintiff (or petitioner), and your spouse is the defendant (or respondent).
Where and when did you and your spouse marry? Did you bring your marriage certificate?
Depending on the nature of the hearing, you may need to produce it. Always carry it to court, just in case.
How long have you and your spouse lived continuously separate and apart?
Some states have a minimum mandatory separation timeframe. If you do not meet the minimum, you may not be able to proceed with specific legal issues.
What are the issues that we are deciding here today?
This may already be known, but the judge may want to confirm it. He may also ask if both sides have had any pre-hearing discussions that have led to the issues already being resolved.
Are we deciding issues related to any children in this marriage today?
If you are in court to resolve temporary visitation and custody issues, child support issues, insurance issues or other child-related matters, the judge will need to know who the children are, their ages, where they currently live and go to school and if there are any other orders already in place with the court.
If you have had a chance to frame out the child-related issues, the judge will ask both of you if you are fit and proper custodians (i.e., no physical, mental, drug or alcohol abuse is present). The judge will also ask about how health and childcare expenses will be handled and may want to know about the incomes of each parent.
Are you here today seeking a protective order of any kind?
These are granted on an emergency basis, and you will need to have some documentation to present to the judge to validate your request. This may be testimony from police, actual signs of physical violence against you or your children, or other proof to substantiate your claim.
Are we here today because one of you has violated previous court orders?
When a spouse does not follow the orders set forth by the court, they can be held in contempt and brought in front of a judge. This may result in penalties against the non-compliant party. The judge will listen to testimony, review evidence, and make a ruling that could bring stiff penalties against the spouse who has not done what they were ordered to do.
What to expect in a divorce hearing from your attorney
Attorneys are paid very well for their efforts. In return, you have the right to expect that an attorney will be well prepared, on time, and ready to fight for your interests.
Much of an attorney’s efforts in a divorce hearing depend on how well they have prepared beforehand. If they have done the hard work in advance, they should have a pretty good idea of how decisions will be determined.
While court hearings are not wholly scripted, they are also not wholly ad-libbed either. There are formal rules, procedures, and processes your attorney should be intimately familiar with. You may also get an advantage is your attorney knows the particular court system and personnel as well.
While you want an attorney vigorously defend your rights, you also want an attorney who understands when it is smart to compromise as well. This means learning how to read an opposing attorney, the judge, and your spouse. When it is appropriate, your attorney should be ready to step outside and negotiate a resolution for the day’s events. Narrowing the issues in advance reduces anger between spouses, saves money, and time.
Finally, you will want your attorney to take time to communicate with you so that you understand what’s going on. This will reduce your anxiety and make you a better client to real your goals as well.
What to expect in a divorce hearing from the judge
Judges are busy and have a full calendar of hearings and trials. Unfortunately, the judge simply does not have enough time to really get to know the full story. As a result, the judge will be making decisions for your family without a limited understanding of the background.
This is one of the reasons that it often makes sense to consider alternatives to litigation. If you and your spouse are able to work together to reach agreements, that gives you more control over the outcome.
Judges have to make a lot of important decisions every day that they are in court. So, expect that the judge will give you the amount of respect that you give back, but don’t expect too much more than that.
Once the issues are identified, you will have a small window of time to make your best case in front of a judge. What you bring to the courtroom will be reflected on you. If you are organized and respectful, expect the same.
As part of the pre-hearing, your attorney may be asked to give the judge a time estimate on how long it will take to work through the issues in your hearing. The judge will then have an expectation and deviating from this without good cause can work against you.
When you miss the time estimate by a wide margin, your hearing could get continued, or the judge will hurry you along, and you may not be able to present everything that you want.
Overall, some judges are more amenable than others. Some can be hard on attendees, but overall, the goal is to resolve issues quickly and fairly.
What to expect in a divorce hearing from your husband’s (or wife’s) attorney
Just like everyone else in court, an attorney representing your spouse is there to do the best job possible for their client. They will have goals in mind and may be cordial to you, but understand an opposing side’s attorney is not there to be your friend.
If you are going through a painful divorce, you need to be mentally prepared that things could get rough in a court hearing.
If you are also represented by an attorney, the two of you should have gone over what to expect. Pre-hearing prep not only on the issues but on your demeanor can go a long way to winning the battle.
How to prepare for and get through your divorce hearing without an attorney
There’s a right way and a wrong way to prepare for a divorce court hearing if you’re representing yourself in court. Here are some things you need to do to give yourself a chance at the best possible outcome:
Not only do you need to have all of your paperwork with you, but it must also be accessible at a moment’s notice. Do not waste the court’s time because you can’t put your hands on documents or evidence when it’s requested. Keep your records in a master file and make sure you are familiar with every piece of paper that you might need. Judges hate it when you waste time and being disorganized is a surefire way to do that.
Perceptions can go a long way in helping the court make decisions about your credibility. Dressing well shows respect for the court. Make sure you are well-groomed, and at the very least, wear nice business casual clothing. This means no jeans, t-shirts, ballcaps, dirty clothes, nightclub wear, yoga pants, or sweatpants. If you have a suit and tie, that’s always a good wardrobe move too. Women should dress conservatively, nothing too suggestive or sexy. And keep the perfumes, colognes, lotions, and potions to a minimum.
Be on time.
In fact, be early! Know where you are going. Allow extra time for traffic, parking, and security checkpoints. If you don’t know where to go once you arrive at the courthouse, ask somebody! Court personnel and bailiffs should be plentiful and helpful. This is their house, and they will know their way around. When you arrive late, you run the risk that your case may have already been called and that the court moved forward without, despite every good intention you had for participating.
Turn your cellphone off.
Do this before you enter the courtroom. In some jurisdictions, you may not even be able to bring your cellphone into the courtroom because cameras are not allowed. If you want to make a judge mad, make sure your cellphone goes off right in the middle of your hearing or during another case. You’ll wind up being embarrassed and probably get a good scolding from the judge. If you’re not careful, your phone could even be confiscated.
Show respect for the courtroom and the judge.
Always be polite and ask questions in a very straightforward manner if you don’t know what you should be doing. A certain amount of this is expected. There are specific rules that must be followed, whether you are an attorney, a witness, or a plaintiff or defendant in a divorce hearing. If you can, get to court early and watch how the process plays out.
Above all else, show a lot of respect to the judge. They do hold your immediate future in their hands. Never argue with the judge. Keep calm and try to stick to the facts. Even if the other side attacks you, keep your cool. Some spouses and some attorneys will attempt to rattle you as part of a strategy to put you at a disadvantage. Don’t fall for it.
If your behavior really crosses the line, perhaps by using profanity, showing anger, making threats, or threatening physical violence, you are going to not only do well in your hearing, you could be spending some time in a nearby jail cell.
One of the most significant benefits of using an attorney is going to court with someone who not only is intimately familiar with the court processes and personalities but someone who can also take the intense emotions out of any proceedings. Sticking to the facts and acting civilized can only improve your chances of getting what you want.
What happens if you fail to attend a divorce hearing?
A couple of things will happen – none of them good.
First and foremost, you are going to make the judge angry because you have disrespected the court. It doesn’t matter if you were depressed, scared, angry, or whatever. However, if you have a legitimate reason (i.e., car accident, health emergency, etc.) and your absence was unavoidable, then you’ll be given a pass.
Make sure your reason for missing a court hearing is a damn good one. Judges can smell liars and fakes a mile away. If you make up a story and lie to the court, you’re only compounding a bad situation.
What are the repercussions for missing a court hearing?
If you didn’t notify the court, you could be charged with contempt. If the judge is angry enough, he or she can issue a bench warrant, and you may also be fined.
The other thing that can happen is that a judge can decide the issues in the hearing without your input. You could be stuck with some very unfavorable terms when it comes to temporary spousal support, visitation or other important matters.
When you don’t notify the court in advance, and you don’t have a good reason for not showing up, you may be able to delay your divorce for a short while. But overall, it will not stop your divorce from moving forward.
Just as you need to understand the implications of your actions, you also need to understand the consequences of your inactions as well.