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Basic Procedural Steps of Divorce in Family Court

Hilary Purtell
Contributor

I write about family law best practices and divorce in Massachusetts. 

Navigating the family court system during a divorce is like exploring uncharted territory; it is complex and can often feel overwhelming. From initiating the divorce petition to the final decisions rendered in a trial, each stage is pivotal, shaping outcomes in family matters such as child custody, financial support, and asset division. A grasp of the fundamental procedural steps is not only essential for those directly involved but also empowers individuals to make informed decisions along the way.

This article aims to demystify the primary steps, providing a solid foundation for understanding the process and preparing for the journey ahead. While some divorces may involve additional complexities and take longer to resolve, other cases may proceed to a faster resolution (for example, not all cases will require status or case management conferences). In all cases, however, the process is generally the same, and adherence to basic court rules will include the following key steps:

✓  Filing a Complaint/ Petition
✓  Notice to the Other Party
✓  Responsive Pleading
✓  Orders Hearing
✓  Management Conference
✓  Process (Financial Discovery)
✓  Dispute Resolution (ADR)
✓  4-way and Pre-trial Conferences
✓  Trial Preparation
✓  Trial
✓  Judgment
✓  Appeals
✓  Post-Judgment Motions

Initiation of Divorce by Filing a Complaint

This marks the beginning of the story, where the commencement of a case involves  filing a petition, otherwise called a complaint. This formal document delineates the specific issues for the court's consideration, laying the groundwork for the legal proceedings. The party initiating the case, referred to as the plaintiff, submits this petition to the court and offers crucial details about the case, such as child custody, financial support, or property division. This establishes the foundation for subsequent procedural steps, including notifying the other party and initiating the discovery process.

Service of Notice

After the filing of the complaint, the court ensures the other party is officially notified of the legal action by issuing a document called a summons, which typically includes important details such as the names of the parties involved, the court's jurisdiction, the deadline for responding to the complaint and instructions on how to respond. This summons, along with any accompanying documents, must be served to the other party by a neutral third party known as a process server. Some jurisdictions have specific rules about who can serve legal documents, but the summons is typically served by a local constable who will make sure the opposing party and/or their lawyer receive the notice.

Responsive Pleading

The party who was served the summons, or the defendant in the case, gets the chance to respond to the complaint by submitting a document known as a "responsive pleading." This reply addresses the allegations and requests outlined by the plaintiff in the initial filing, and will state the defendant's position on the issues raised in the complaint. Some of these responses may include counterarguments, defenses or additional claims. Importantly, the defendant has a specified time period to respond, so if you are the defendant you will need to read the court summons carefully–it will sepcifiy how much time you have to answer the complaint. 

Parties can request an extension for filing a responsive pleading, although the ability to request an extension and the process for doing so may vary. Courts require the parties to demonstrate "reasonable cause" by providing a valid and justifiable reason for the delay, including unexpected circumstances, emergencies, or the need for additional time to gather information or consult with legal counsel.

Temporary Orders Hearing

The temporary orders hearing occurs after the initial pleadings and, in some cases, during or after the discovery phase. This type of hearing is common in family law cases such as divorce or child custody disputes where parties may need interim guidance on matters like child custody, visitation, spousal support or financial issues. The temporary orders hearing falls in the timeline of a case as an intermediate step before the final resolution. The primary purpose is to establish temporary arrangements that will govern the parties' conduct and responsibilities during the ongoing legal proceedings. This ensures that immediate needs, especially those involving children, are addressed while the case progresses. Temporary orders remain in effect throughout the case until a final resolution is reached through negotiation, mediation, or trial. Not all cases require a hearing on temporary orders; the necessity depends on the specific circumstances of each case, the issues involved, and the formal requests made by the parties.

Case Management Conference

Some courts may schedule a case management conference to discuss the issues, identify contested and uncontested matters, and set a timeline for the proceedings.This type of conference (CMC), involves a meeting between the parties, their attorneys, and sometimes the judge. The goal here is to streamline the legal process through the discussion of key issues, identifying areas of agreement or disagreement, and establish a timeline for the case. The judge may provide guidance on required documents, set deadlines, and encourage the parties to explore settlement options. The CMC helps ensure that the case progresses efficiently, providing the opportunity for early issue resolution if that becomes possible.

Discovery Process

This is the information-sharing phase, where both sides exchange all relevant documents to ensure everyone is on the same page. In addition to traditional methods like requests for documents, interrogatories, subpoenas and depositions, parties may involve specialized consultants such as a discovery “master,” vocational, real estate or financial experts, a child custody expert (such as a Guardian at Litem and/or a Parent Coordinator), and in extreme cases, an ARC (attorney representing children). These specialists play critical roles in providing expertise and insights within their respective domains, contributing to a comprehensive understanding of the case. This critical and often time-consuming process allows each party to gather the evidence, clarify facts, and understand the other party's position in order to foster transparency. As a general rule, all discovery requests must be responded to within 30 days, but the court does have the ability to prescribe different timelines. The Discovery Process is pivotal not only in informing the decision-making process, but also in preparing for any type of settlement negotiations or formal trial.

Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR)

Courts often nudge parties to try and settle things amicably outside of court, or shorten the duration of the case. Sometimes the Judge requires the parties to participate in processes such as mediation or conciliation, to try and encourage communication and negotiation between the parties with the help of a neutral, or “third party” expert. During ADR, the parties work towards reaching an agreement on various issues such as child custody, financial support or property division, among other things. ADR is often seen as a more cooperative and cost effective approach to dispute resolution, and the methods used will depend on the nature and complexity of the case.

Status Conference

In some cases the court will schedule a status conferences as part of its case management process. The purpose is to update the court on the progress of the case, address any pending motions, discuss discovery issues, and ensure that the case is moving forward according to schedule. Unlike the more specific conferences outlined below, It is a broader check-in on the overall status of the case. The court may issue notices to the parties and their attorneys indicating the date and time of the conference; parties may also request a status conference under certain circumstances, especially if there are specific issues or concerns they wish to address. The ability to request a status conference may be subject to court rules and procedures, and can occur at various points during the legal process.

4-Way Conference

The 4-way conference (also known as a settlement conference) involves a meeting between both parties and their respective attorneys, providing an opportunity for both parties to come together and try and settle the open issues of the case. During this conference, parties and their attorneys discuss the issues, exchange information, and explore possible agreements with the goal of reaching a mutually acceptable resolution and avoid the need for a formal trial. The 4-way conference is a mandatory step in the Massachusetts Family Court, and the judges will require this conference before they allow the case to progress to a pre-trial phase.

Pre-Trial Conference

The pre-trial conference happens when both parties and their attorneys meet with the judge before their scheduled trial. This conference aims to streamline the upcoming trial by discussing any outstanding issues, identify areas of agreement or disagreement, and ensure that both parties are adequately prepared. The judge may provide guidance on trial procedures, clarify legal issues, and again encourage the parties to resolve any remaining disputes outside of court. The pre-trial conference is also an opportunity to address logistical matters and establish a clear plan for what may happen at trial.

Trial Preparation

Preparation for trial is a comprehensive phase that entails both parties and their legal representatives being thoroughly ready for the formal proceedings. This process includes organizing evidence, identifying relevant witnesses and formulating legal arguments. Parties collaborate to develop a strategic plan, to make certain they are well-prepared to present their case before the judge. Trial preparation also involves reviewing and understanding the rules of evidence, anticipating potential challenges, and making necessary arrangements for the efficient presentation of facts. The ultimate aim of trial preparation is to deliver a compelling and well-supported case.

Trial

If a resolution between the parties can not been reached through settlement or ADR, then the case proceeds to trial. A trial in the family court is the formal legal proceeding where both parties present their cases before a judge. Trials can be held over the course of one or several days; they may be consecutive or spread out over months. During the trial each side provides evidence, submits documents, calls witnesses, provides testimonies under oath, and presents legal arguments to support their positions. The judge then carefully considers the presented evidence and evaluates the legal arguments in order to ultimately decide how the case will be resolved.

Judgment

A court judgment represents the ultimate decision rendered by the judge following a trial. This formal, legally binding document outlines the judge's findings, rulings and orders concerning the issues at hand as well as any agreements already reached between the parties. After a trial, the Judge will issue a divorce “Nisi", which refers to a provisional or conditional divorce judgement that is not yet final until the expiration of a waiting period, which in Massachusetts is typically 90 days. During this period the court allows time for any potential challenges or objections to the divorce decree to be raised; if no valid objections or challenges are made, the court issues the decree absolute and the marriage is officially dissolved. It is important to note the length of the waiting period can differ; Individuals going through a divorce should consult with their attorneys to understand the specific procedures and requirements applicable to their jurisdiction.

Appeals

If parties remain dissatisfied with the judgment, they may have the option to appeal the judge’s decision to a higher court. During an appeal, the higher court examines the lower court's decision and determines whether it should be affirmed, modified, or reversed. Appeals are generally based on legal arguments rather than the presentation of new evidence. It should be noted that the grounds for an appeal are typically limited, and there are designated timeframes within which a party can initiate an appeal.

Post-Judgment Motions

After a final judgment is made in a divorce case, parties may file various post-judgment motions to address specific issues or seek modifications. Parties can file motions to modify child custody, child support, or alimony when changes in circumstances affect financial or family dynamics. Modifications to visitation schedules or parenting time may also be sought through relevant motions. In cases of non-compliance with court orders, parties can file motions to enforce the judgment. The availability and requirements for these motions vary by jurisdiction, and parties should consult their attorneys to determine the most suitable course of action based on their individual circumstances.

Conclusion

Understanding these procedural steps is essential for anyone navigating a divorce in the Family Court. From the initial filing to the conclusion at trial, each step plays a critical role in determining the outcome of the case. All of these steps will be the same, whether you are represented by a lawyer or if you choose to represent yourself, also called filing Pro Se. Navigating complexities, ensuring compliance with court rules, and working towards a resolution that aligns with the interests and wellbeing of all parties involved can be stressful and exhausting. Legal guidance and support by a lawyer who specializes in family court can be costly, but if your finances permit, this is a highly advisable way to go through the process. 

Hilary Purtell 
Contributor 

I am a professional actor, voice talent, on camera host, and co-director of non-profit Jane Does Well Organization’s Education and Advocacy Committee. 

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