What Is a Divorce Trial?
Updated December 2, 2023
A significant question for many is, “What is a divorce trial?” How many divorces have a trial? If they do, what’s it like?
Divorce trials can be overwhelming and confusing, but understanding the process from start to finish can give you a sense of control and peace of mind. In this article, we will decode the intricacies of divorce trials and provide you with a comprehensive understanding of what to expect.
From the initial filing to the final judgment, divorce trials go through several stages, each with its procedures and requirements. We will walk you through the pretrial preparation, including gathering necessary documents and evidence, as well as the courtroom proceedings, such as presenting witnesses and arguments.
Navigating through child custody, division of assets, and spousal support can be emotionally and financially draining. However, armed with the right information and strategies, you can minimize stress and ensure a fair outcome.
Whether you’re contemplating a divorce or are already in the process, this article will equip you with the knowledge to make informed decisions and protect your rights. Stay tuned as we dive deeper into divorce trials, demystifying the legal jargon and shedding light on the steps involved.
Please read on to learn more.
Divorce Trial Basics
A divorce trial happens when spouses cannot agree on some or any of the issues in their divorce. If you can’t resolve all of the issues in your case, the judge decides for you at the trial. Another way to think of a trial is as the very final court hearing in a divorce.
Because the trial is the very last step, there are plenty of opportunities to avoid trial altogether. If you and your spouse reach a complete agreement, you will have an uncontested divorce hearing, not a trial. The wait for an uncontested hearing is much shorter than the wait for a trial.
What Issues Do Judges Decide at a Divorce Trial?
The issues that someone must decide in every divorce are alimony and property division. Someone must also decide on child support and custody if they have children. The trial judge will do it if you and your spouse can’t make those decisions.
It’s important to know that the judge will only rule on any issues that are still outstanding by the time of trial. In other words — the trial is when everything that hasn’t previously been ruled on or agreed upon gets decided. For example, say you and your ex agreed on all the financial issues but disagreed on how parenting would work post-divorce. In that case, the judge at your trial would only decide custody.
How Many Divorces Go to Trial?
Very few. The vast majority of divorces (about 95%) are resolved in an out-of-court settlement. That’s for three main reasons. First, it’s because trials are very financially costly (in terms of not only legal fees but also often expert fees and expenses). Second, because of the delay. It often takes a long time to get trial dates, and once you have them, they are frequently delayed. Third, because trials are unpredictable.
If you can reach agreements with your spouse, you maintain much more control over the outcome than if you leave it to a stranger in a black robe to decide. Remember, they don’t know you or your family, and the time your lawyer has to present your case is often much more limited than you’d like. In addition, the rules of evidence apply — which means your trial lawyer may be unable to introduce everything you think is important.
Before you proceed to trial, be very sure that the potential upsides are worth the expense, delay, and lack of control over the outcome. Listen carefully to your lawyers’ counsel about the likelihood of success on the issues you care about most. If you think your lawyer may be too optimistic about your odds, consider seeking a “second opinion.” If your lawyer isn’t telling you what you want to hear, know they may be right.
Divorce Trial Alternatives
Connecticut has three major approaches to divorce: mediation, collaborative divorce, and litigation. Mediation and collaborative divorce are Alternative Dispute Resolution, or “ADR.” In both mediated and collaborative divorces, the spouses commit to reaching decisions on all aspects of their divorce outside of court without a judge. (If they can’t do so, their divorce converts into a litigated divorce.)
If you and your spouse do not both agree to opt-in to mediation or collaborative divorce, you will have a litigated divorce.
That isn’t the end of the story, though. Litigations range from exceedingly low conflict — where spouses can reach agreements on all issues in their divorce without court intervention — to extremely high conflict — where spouses cannot reach agreements on anything, and a judge winds up ruling on your divorce following a trial.
As litigation is the default approach for Connecticut divorces, it’s no surprise that most divorces are litigated.
What may be a surprise, though, is that in most divorce litigation, spouses reach a full settlement agreement out-of-court.
In other words, very few divorces end in a trial.
What Happens at a Trial?
When your divorce goes to trial, your divorce attorney presents your case to the judge at a formal trial in court. The judge will hear each spouse’s case and will make any outstanding decisions.
Although we do not have jury trials in Connecticut divorce cases, the courtroom is typically open to the public during your trial. In other words, mentally prepare for the possibility strangers may be in the courtroom during your trial.
Your lawyer does a significant amount of work to prepare for trial. For example, before your trial begins, your attorney will prepare and exchange Pretrial documents with your spouse’s attorney. These include sworn Financial Affidavits, Proposed Orders, Witness Lists, Exhibit Lists, and lists of Pending Motions. The judge may also schedule Pretrials close to the trial date.
The plaintiff in the divorce (the spouse who filed first) generally goes first at trial. In other words, at the beginning of the trial, the plaintiff’s attorney presents her case in chief to the court. The plaintiff’s attorney calls witnesses to testify on the plaintiff’s behalf. She asks witnesses questions during her “direct examination.”
There are two types of witnesses at a trial. Fact witnesses testify about things they have personally observed. Expert witnesses have special skills or experience to help the judge understand the evidence. An example of an expert witness is a business valuator or a real estate appraiser. Your attorney will choose the order of the witnesses who testify on your behalf, including the order of experts or the Guardian Ad Litem (GAL).
After the plaintiff’s attorney finishes questioning each witness, the defendant’s attorney can ask questions. We call this “cross-examination.”
When the plaintiff has called all her witnesses, it’s the defendant’s turn to present her case in chief. Then, again, the defendant’s attorney does the direct examination, and the plaintiff’s attorney can conduct a cross-examination.
Hiring the Right Divorce Trial Attorney
Hiring the right attorney is one of the most important decisions you’ll make during the divorce trial. A skilled divorce attorney will guide you through the legal complexities and provide valuable advice and support. Consider their experience and skill in family law litigation, reputation, and communication style when choosing an attorney.
It’s essential to have open and honest communication with your attorney throughout the trial. Ensure they understand your goals and priorities and are committed to achieving the best possible outcome. Regularly update them on any changes or developments in your case, and don’t hesitate to ask questions or seek clarification.
It’s also important to know that your lawyer has a lot to do to prepare for your trial. To put on the best case possible, they will need to spend a lot of time on “behind the scenes” trial preparation that you aren’t necessarily directly involved in.
Stages of a Divorce Trial
Divorce trials consist of several stages, each with its procedures and requirements. Familiarizing yourself with these stages will help you navigate the process more effectively.
Before the trial begins, there are several crucial steps you need to take. Your divorce attorney will design a trial strategy and advise you regarding the necessary documents, such as financial records, property titles, and any other evidence relevant to your case. It is essential to be organized and thorough during this stage, as the documents you provide will play a significant role in determining the outcome of your trial. Expect to update the written discovery you previously provided and possibly attend depositions or be deposed yourself.
At the same time you are preparing for trial, you will likely also be trying to settle your case. You may need to attend mediation or settlement conferences to try and resolve disputes with your spouse. These alternative dispute resolution methods can limit the issues that need to be determined at trial, which saves time and money. Sometimes, you’ll reach a mutual agreement on all the issues, eliminating the need for a trial. However, the case will proceed to the courtroom if you don’t reach a full settlement.
Read: Depositions & Divorce
Opening Statements and Presentation of Evidence
Once in the courtroom, both parties will have the opportunity to present their opening statements. This is where your attorney outlines your case and the specific issues you want the court to address. It is crucial to be concise, clear, and persuasive during this stage, as it sets the tone for the rest of the trial.
After the opening statements, the presentation of evidence begins. Each party will present their evidence, including documents, photographs, and witness testimonies, to support their claims. It is essential to have your evidence well-organized and readily accessible to ensure a smooth and effective presentation.
Examination and Cross-Examination of Witnesses
During the trial, lawyers may call witnesses to testify on various matters, such as child custody, asset division, or spousal support. Witnesses can include laypeople with relevant information or experts. The attorneys will be able to ask questions and elicit responses from the witnesses through direct examination.
Following the direct examination, the opposing attorney will have the opportunity to cross-examine the witness. This is an essential stage of the trial, as it allows both parties to challenge the credibility and accuracy of the witness’s statements. Skillful cross-examination can often uncover inconsistencies or weaknesses in the opposing party’s case.
Expert Testimonies and Evaluations
In some divorce trials, expert witnesses may be called to provide specialized knowledge or opinions on some issues. For example, a forensic accountant may be brought in to evaluate the value of assets or uncover hidden finances. These expert testimonies can significantly influence the court’s decision, and it is crucial to have well-prepared questions to ensure the expert’s credibility and expertise are effectively demonstrated. The spouse who retains the expert is responsible for their fees.
Legal Arguments and Objections
Throughout the trial, both parties’ attorneys will present legal arguments to support their positions. These arguments may involve interpreting relevant laws, presenting case precedents, or challenging the admissibility of evidence. It is essential to have a skilled attorney who can effectively present legal arguments and respond to objections raised by the opposing party.
Closing Arguments and Summations
Once all the evidence has been presented, both parties can present their closing arguments. This is the final opportunity to persuade the judge to rule in your favor. Your divorce attorney will summarize the critical points of your case, highlight the strengths of your arguments, and address any weaknesses the opposing party raises.
The Judge’s Decision and Post-Trial Proceedings
Eventually, the judge will decide based on the evidence presented and the applicable laws after the closing arguments. This can take up to 120 days to receive. The judge’s decision will be communicated in writing and may include orders regarding child custody, asset division, and spousal support. It is essential to carefully review the judge’s decision and consult with your attorney regarding any post-trial proceedings, such as appealing or enforcing the judgment.
How Long Is a Trial?
The length of a trial depends upon several factors. They include the following:
- Number of witnesses
- Complexity of the issues involved and,
- Court’s schedule and availability.
Trials can last anywhere from a few hours to multiple weeks. When divorce trials require multiple days or weeks, the court may not schedule them back-to-back. In other words, even if you have a three-week trial, it could take place over months. It’s also important to know that legal and scheduling issues sometimes arise during the case, causing the additional delay.
How Long Does It Take For the Judge To Rule?
The judge has 120 days from the final day of the trial to issue a decision. That said, when there are complicated facts or legal issues, Judges may request that attorneys file post-trial briefs. In that case, the judge has 120 days to rule from when the briefs were due.
Dealing With Emotions During the Trial
Divorce trials can stir up a range of emotions, from anger and resentment to sadness and fear. Finding healthy ways to cope with these emotions during the trial is essential. Consider seeking support from a therapist or counselor who specializes in divorce-related issues.
Take care of your physical and mental well-being by practicing self-care. Engage in activities that help reduce stress and promote relaxation, such as exercise, meditation, or spending time with loved ones. Remember that maintaining emotional stability will benefit your overall well-being and contribute to a more effective trial experience.
Once the trial concludes, there are several post-trial considerations and next steps to remember. If you’re satisfied with the outcome, you may need to take action to enforce the court’s orders or finalize the divorce. If you’re dissatisfied, you may have the option to appeal the decision or seek alternative dispute resolution methods.
Consult with your attorney to discuss the best course of action based on the trial’s outcome. They will guide you through the necessary steps and help you navigate the post-trial process. Remember to communicate openly with your attorney throughout this phase to ensure a smooth transition.
How Do I Avoid a Divorce Trial?
You know you will avoid a trial if you reach a full resolution on your divorce. But how do you do that? Experienced divorce lawyers have multiple tools to help you and your ex reach a settlement agreement. They include:
There are three main ways that resolutions are reached:
- Discussions between the spouses (aka “Kitchen Table Conversations”)
- Negotiation between the two divorce attorneys
- Conversations with the spouses and their lawyers present (via “Four Way Meetings” or “Pretrial Conferences“)
Remember, most litigation ultimately settles out of court — some very early and some right before trial.
Read: Settlement & Divorce
Read: ADR & Divorce
Check out our Divorce Information and Facts for more about Connecticut divorce and family law. If you have questions or want to learn more about how our team of divorce attorneys can help you with your divorce or post-judgment issue, please get in touch with us here.