I’m getting a divorce. It’s a simple, four-word sentence, yet holds so much weight. The amount that goes into this process can be overwhelming. One of the biggest questions on your mind is probably the judicial process that comes with going to court. What do they want to see from you? How do you get them to rule in your favor? What should you expect going into a courtroom? Honorable Judge Siegal joined T.H. and Jessica on the Divorce etc… podcast to discuss the do’s and don’ts in court and what the judge is going to do for you – everything you’re wondering before your court appearance.
First Things First
If you’ve been with the exEXPERTS community for a while now, you’re sure to know that T.H. was in front of a total of five judges during her divorce process. “It’s a daunting experience to be in front of a judge,” T.H. recalls. “All of my judges were very different.”
She, like the rest of us, entered court scared and unsure of what to expect. And of course, was thinking about the biggest question: will they be fair?
“Fair” to a judge doesn’t always align with what you deem fair for your situation. There are many factors at play to determine what they will decide is the right ruling.
The judge you’ll get isn’t only dealing with your case, or even just ten cases, but could be handling hundreds of cases. And unless your case involves custody, your case will have to wait in chronological order. While most states have a policy that cases should all take place within one year, it’s highly unlikely that it will be resolved that quickly, for many reasons.
This doesn’t mean they’ll be “indifferent” or “insensitive” to your case. Rather, they need to give it the time it needs to be handled conscientiously from beginning to end, and this can be unsatisfactory to those who want this to be over as soon as possible.
What is Fair?
Remember, perspective differs between people. Judges face people living with a variety of incomes, and a variety of expenses that need coverage, and they are told what each party is asking for. The judge sees and takes all of that into account.
Hon. Judge Siegal, along with every other judge out there, sees well-off families discussing their difficulties when they’ve also seen the very poor with very limited means, and how hard they have to work with their own needs. They experience a wide variety of cases, each differing in where they come from and what they’re asking for.
So do these differing perspectives affect your case in the eyes of the judge? To an extent, yes. Not that judges are prejudiced against the more affluent, but rather, they have seen a multitude of situations and overseen so many cases that influence what they see as valuable to any situation. And this is something to consider when deciding what to do with your case.
Settling vs. Having Your Case Tried
The court system provides lots of opportunities for parties going through divorce to try to “settle” a case to promote a resolution. But despite this, some people still feel that they can get a different outcome if they have their case tried.
Having your case tried is risky. “Courts don’t have great creativity,” Hon. Judge Siegal admits. “We’re bound by statute, and the statute gives us certain factors we have to look at.” So saying “I’m a good parent,” or “I did everything expected of me” – that all goes out the window. There’s no way to factor that in. The factors that will matter won’t be about your character as much as they will be about age, income, and health.
So at the end of the day, if you can’t come up with a resolution on your own, you’re at the mercy of what the judge deems fair, even if that’s not what you expected to be considered fair. “I don’t think anybody should risk putting their lives in the hands of a stranger, however, learned that stranger is,” Hon. Judge Siegal states. “They should exercise as much control over their future as they can, even though it may well be a compromise.”
That’s why mediation and collaborative law are encouraged. But then again, there are some cases that Hon. Judge Siegal does believe cannot be resolved, and therefore have to be tried in court.
Top Mistakes Seen
Hon. Judge Siegal has seen many mistakes made by those entering a courtroom and ran through the list on the podcast.
Always be respectful. What does that mean? You have to look respectful. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen people dress in a manner that I think is really disrespectful to the court,” Hon. Judge Siegal notes.
Judges themselves have to wear a black robe, and the lawyers representing you wear suits or formal attire, so you should make an effort to align with that wardrobe. This is one immediate opportunity to showcase who you are and that you are taking the situation seriously to the judge.
Don’t bring a shopping bag. Find a clean and formal way to store your documents, even just a folder of sorts. Judge Siegel says she’s seen far too many people come into the courtroom disorganized and using random shopping bags to hold their papers. No shopping bag.
Never interrupt your attorney. You can write a note to them, but don’t interrupt them verbally. Judges will form an opinion on that action.
Do your homework. You want your attorney to be the one the judge relies on. Ask your attorney to give you the statutes, and give them the information they need to answer any questions that come up. “You should fill in all the factors, and let your attorney be as knowledgeable about who you are and what you need as anybody else,” says Judge Siegel.
Do not speak. The judges don’t want you to speak. This isn’t a trial, it’s a court proceeding. Let the attorney do the talking.
Don’t bring your kids. Some people think bringing in their children will show they don’t have home care or show that they were part of a domestic violence event, and the child is witness to the fact that they don’t get child support. Judge Siegel emphasizes that we are the voice for the children. Don’t put them in the middle. Children love their parents, and putting them in that situation to take sides is not healthy.
A lot of litigants, predominantly female, come into court unrepresented. And it seems as though they come in unaware of so many of the technicalities, and statutes – things that they are judged on and therefore at a disadvantage in court. So if this is you, if you’re not being represented, are you at a disadvantage in getting a divorce? Judge Siegel says the short answer is yes. The long answer is unless your case is super simple – meaning you’re there simply to get your divorce and might not have all the complications of children or you both are living wage earners – everyone is aided by having assistance from people that are knowledgeable in court. So yes, Hon. Judge Siegal does recommend having representation because unless you’re doing extensive research or know all the ins and outs of a divorce proceeding, you will be at a disadvantage.
Is the Law in my Favor?
In some states, yes, the law will be more favorable toward women to receive a fair share of alimony and aid them in the care and raising of their children. But the law has changed. Some changes were positive in regards to alimony, but in some aspects, they are negative changes, in terms of custody and parenting time. “At the end of the day, it’s really how you advocate, as opposed to the law per se,” Hon. Judge Siegal says. But then, there are states where she sees that women are the ones at a disadvantage, especially if they are not the wage earners. It depends on where you are and where you go to resolve your situation.
So Overall, Settling vs. Going to Court?
Even as a judge, Hon. Judge Siegal still recommends people opt for settling and not taking it to court if they can avoid it. “Your better view is to be in control, to do your homework, to select a good attorney, and to try to resolve your case,” Hon. Judge Siegal recommends. “Be part of the 95% of people that resolve their case, as opposed to that small number that is insistent that they must be tried by a stranger – however smart – a stranger.” In addition, the emotional and financial toll that going to court will take on you isn’t worth it unless necessary.
The bottom line, do the best you can. Listen to Judge Siegel. There are so many options out there for you if you’re trying to decide which path to take.