What Is a Divorce Trial?
A major question for many is “What is a divorce trial?” How many divorces have a trial? If they do, what’s it like?
Read on to learn more.
Divorce Trial Basics
A divorce trial is what 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 are able to reach a full 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 Trial?
The issues that someone must decide in every divorce are alimony and property division. If you have children, someone must also make decisions on child support and custody. If you and your spouse can’t make those decisions, the trial judge will do it for you.
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 reached agreements on all the financial issues but didn’t agree 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?
There are three major approaches to divorce in Connecticut — mediation, collaborative divorce, and litigation. Mediation and collaborative divorce are forms of 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 aren’t unable to 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 are able to 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 the vast majority of 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 askes 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 understanding 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 has the chance to ask questions. This is called “cross examination.”
When the plaintiff has called all of her witnesses, it’s the defendant’s turn to present her case in chief. The defendant’s attorney does the direct examination, and the plaintiff’s attorney has the opportunity to conduct cross examination.
How Long Is a Trial?
The length of a trial depends upon several factors. They include the:
- 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 trials require multiple days or weeks, the court may not schedule them back-to-back. In other words, even in you have a three-week trial, it could take place over months. It’s also important to know that legal and scheduling issues also sometimes arise in the midst of the case, causing additional delay.
How Long Does It Take For the Judge To Rule?
The judge has 120 days from final day of 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 the date the briefs were due.
How Do I Avoid Trial?
You know that 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, the vast majority of litigation ultimately settle out of court — some very early on and some right before trial.
Read: Settlement & Divorce
For more information about Connecticut divorce and family law, check out our Divorce Information and Facts.