People are frequently confused about the steps, or phases, that take place during a disputed family law case in Florida. While every case is different, we’ll try to explain some of the major steps for a dispute that begins with a petition. Examples of cases that would begin with a petition are a divorce, paternity or a post judgment modification matter.
This is the time before anything has been started with the court. You set your long-term goals and determine how a legal action will help achieve them. Specifically, evaluate the merits of your legal problem, proposed request(s) to the court, and weighing the pros and cons of the available options to proceed.
This is also a time to consider if there are options to settle your dispute before filing anything with the court.
The petition is drafted explaining what you are asking from the court along with any other necessary paperwork. Once the initial paperwork is complete, it is filed with the court.
Typically, a summons is issued by the court, then the summons along with all documents filed are served, it is then served (delivered) on the opposing party. This is called “serving of process.” It is typically done by the local Sheriff’s department or a private process server.
Once the other party has been served, they have a period to respond to the petition; typically, 20 days.
The respondent has time to review and reply with an answer and/or a counter request to the court. Any required disclosures (ie, mandatory disclosure) are also exchanged.
This is the opportunity to request additional documents and information about your case needed to help settle, prosecute, or evaluate the legal merits. Examples of requests can include: request to produce, subpoena, deposition, request for admissions, and interrogatories.
This may also be a time where you might involve a Guardian ad Litem, a parenting coordinator, or psychological evaluation.
In this phase the parties try to resolve their differences helped by a trained neutral mediator. Ideally you want to enter the mediation process with full knowledge of your factual and legal situation which is why it is important to obtain any needed information during the pre-mediation discovery phase.
It is good practice for each party to have a prep meeting with an attorney before mediation to make sure they are clear on their case status including:
Not adequately preparing for mediation in advance can easily lead to an unproductive mediation spent on activities and exchanging information that should have been done before mediation. This can be a cause for mediation to fail. Don’t you want to say you did the best to settle before undertaking the expense and time needed for trial? If so, make sure you are well prepared for mediation!
Many family law courts will require mediation before a judge will get involved in a legal case in a significant way.
At this phase you need to be getting ready for trial. Yes, you can and should try to settle or go back to mediation if appropriate, but this article is about a full litigation track so we will focus on that.
This phase is much like the pre-mediation discovery phase. At this point you are probably many months into the litigation, there may be new facts that have come to light, or things you have not given enough attention to previously, but now you must recognize you need to present your case at trial.
Have an honest evaluation of your legal case status, your goals, and understand what evidence, witnesses and information you will need to present to the judge.
You may need to gather updated information and documents previously requested. In addition, you may have learned new information that requires additional investigation.
Once you are prepared for trial, a Notice For Trial is filed indicating you are ready to proceed with trial (this can come from the opposing party as well).
You finalize your trial strategy, prepare evidence, witnesses, witness questions, your testimony and statements to the court. Eventually you present your case to the judge who will make a final decision on all aspects of your case.
There is usually an order from the court that will detail significant trial procedures, filing requirements, meetings and deadlines you must follow. Rules and procedures vary from county to county and judge to judge.
The trial is usually the end. Sometimes a judge or magistrate will prepare the written final judgment and related documents and other times an attorney may.
If there were legal deficiencies, omissions or clarifications needed with the final ruling you can request a re-hearing, clarification and/or appeal the case. Often there are VERY short deadlines to request these activities, so consult with an experienced attorney if you feel the final judgment was lacking in some way.
There are also other activities common during a litigated case that may occur during the process. Some of these include:
Here are helpful tips we often give to people regarding litigation:
This is a simple overall look at the litigation process. Every case has different needs and circumstances so the actual process may be different for you. Ask lots of questions and get appropriate legal advice when needed.