6-Step Litigation Process Explained

Judge presiding over couple in court

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.


Mountain with flag at top and trail leading from bottom to top.

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.

  • Do you need to gather additional facts and evidence to support your legal claims?
  • Is there a legal remedy for your problem?
  • Do you understand what the law is regarding your claim?
  • Do you have enough evidence to convince a judge?
  • What is the likelihood of achieving your desired outcome?
  • Is a resolution worth the time, money and emotion to litigate?
  • How is the other party going to react and how might that change your legal strategy?
  • What if you lose?
  • What are the downsides to suing?
  • What administrative orders are, or will, you be under (if any)?

This is also a time to consider if there are options to settle your dispute before filing anything with the court.

Litigation Initiation

Hands holding pen writing out a document titled "petition"

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.

Pre-Mediation Discovery

Hand held magnifying glass looking at bar chart and line graph.

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.


Four people sitting at round table meeting. Papers, laptop, drinks and cell phone on table.

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:

  • What happens at mediation, what are the procedures and how does it conclude;
  • Procedures following mediation;
  • Good understanding of your legal rights and obligations in this case;
  • Goals for the mediation;
  • Understanding of possible outcomes should it go to trial;
  • Establishing boundaries for the terms of the mediation.

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 which can waste money and delay the case. 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.

Trial Discovery

lots of papers and a hand holding a magnifying glass.

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.

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).


Judge presiding over couple in court

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.

Post-Trial Activities

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.

Other Activities

There are also other activities common during a litigated case that may occur during the process. Some of these include:

  • Temporary Relief – asking the court for a temporary order to address certain needs. This might be to request support, attorney fees, time-sharing with children, freeze assets, and temporary use of home. Some courts in central Florida will require mediation before a temporary relief hearing.
  • Motions For Contempt. Request a hearing to have the other party explain why they are not following a court order.
  • Motion to Compel. A request to the court to compel the other party (or third party) to take some action.
  • Settlement discussions. You can settle a case in Florida at any time before a judge makes their final ruling. Most family law cases do settle before trial.
Graphic that says "Quick Tips" with a light bulb above.


Here are helpful tips we often give to people regarding litigation:

  • Always set goals for your case. Review them frequently, tell them to anyone helping you in your case, and update them as needed.
  • Litigation can be frustrating, particularly if you are representing yourself and have not done anything like this before. Just be patient, organized and educate yourself about the process and the law. You got this!
  • Judges, staff and court clerks are generally kind and helpful. Give the same kindness and courtesy back!
  • Many people do not like to think of their family law disputes as a “lawsuit but litigation is a lawsuit. The dispute is no longer just between two people. The State of Florida has now been asked to step in and make decisions for the family. We often feel people work better when they clearly recognize this.
  • Judges can have thousands of cases. They are great at giving you their full attention when you have a hearing or trial, but don’t expect them to manage your case. That’s your (and your attorney’s) job.
  • Many rules and procedures people find frustrating are not there to frustrate you but put in place to allow courts to handle the large volume of cases. Just accept them as necessary.
  • The law often gives judges wide latitude to make decisions. Be polite, respectful and compliant with their procedures, orders and rulings.
  • It’s good to have friends to talk to, but be cautious of taking legal advice from a non-lawyer. Even well-intentioned advice from someone having gone through something similar, may not be appropriate for you, your situation, or goals.
  • Always keep sight of your long-term goals (you set those, right?). It is easy to get distracted during litigation on short-term activities and events that either have no value to your long-term goals or may even work against your long-term goals. Always keep your eye on your long-term goals; always!

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.