Anatomy of a Family Law Court Case

1. Initial Information Gathering and Decision Making

Soon after your initial meeting with your attorney, your attorney will attempt to gather as much information as possible and to make the major decisions on how the case will be handled. This stage of the case is most important and the cooperation of the client is indispensable. Lawyers are sometimes referred to as “brick masons”– we build the walls, but the client supplies the bricks. At the initial meeting with your attorney, you will be asked to fill out various information forms which enable them to check their records to make sure that they do not have a conflict of interest and to allow them to obtain the basic information (names, addresses, etc.) that will be used later on in the case to prepare letters, pleadings, agreements and the like. It is most important that the client be accurate with names, spellings, dates, and the like. Serving a pleading with the wrong date of marriage or a child’s birthday incorrectly stated only invites criticism. A diligent effort should be made to avoid that type of error. It is most critical that these documents be completed accurately as they will be relied upon by your attorney and the Court.

2. Filing or Defending Suit in the Family Court

In some Kansas counties, family law cases are heard by Judges who also hear other civil and criminal cases. In the large urban areas of Kansas, Family Court Judges do nothing but Family Court work. The case itself must be initiated by a Summons and Petition. The Summons is the document that gives your spouse notice that he or she will have twenty or thirty days (depending on the circumstances) in which to serve responsive pleadings, such as an Answer and Counterclaim. The Petition sets forth the factual and legal basis for your claims. You will be asked to verify pleadings under oath. Extensions of these deadlines are frequently granted. The Summons and Petition, once approved by you, are then filed in the Clerk of Courts Office in the County where the action will be litigated. A filing fee is required by the Court. Upon filing, a Docket Number is assigned to your case and must be written on all pleadings and motions filed in the Court thereafter. Your spouse must then be served with the Summons and Petition, personally. Service is typically done by a private process server or the sheriff or by your spouse accepting service personally

3. Engagement of Experts

In many instances, it is practically impossible to settle or litigate a family law case without the assistance of experts. If your case warrants the engagement of an expert, your attorney may advise you to do so. When financial issues are at stake, your attorney may advise you to hire a Certified Public Accountant with expertise in the family law setting. Accountants are generally used in the family law area to value businesses and professional practices, to ascertain and determine incomes and cash flows, to trace property and investments, to give tax advice, and to otherwise assist with the financial aspects of the case. Where there is a dispute as to property values, your attorney may advise you that real estate appraisers and personal property appraisers be hired to appraise the real estate and personal property that will be at issue in the case. Again, most attorneys prefer to hire appraisers who have experience in the Family Court and whose opinion is respected by the Family Court Judges. The case law governing family law matters, requires that competent evidence be presented to the Court — and in the absence of adequate proof from you, the Family Court Judge is

4. Ex-Parte Temporary Orders

When a Petition for Divorce is filed, Ex-Parte Temporary Orders may be issued in the case to stabilize the family. The Temporary Order, issued by a Family Court Judge will decide, while the case is proceeding, who will live in the marital home, who will have use and possession of household goods, cars and the like, as well as issues involving custody, visitation, child support, alimony, health insurance, attorney fees and other issues. Temporary Orders are issued by the Family Court Judge relying upon the sworn Financial Declaration and Affidavits presented. You will have no opportunity to rebut or challenge what your spouse presents unless you request a hearing to seek modification of the Temporary Order. The Court will then make its decision after hearing brief arguments from the attorneys. If at all possible, it is generally best to attempt to resolve the Temporary Order issues without a hearing.

5. Formal Discovery

The purpose of discovery is to find out the key points and elements of your spouse’s case. The other purpose is to “lock them in”, so whatever their position is it remains constant and your attorney will have the ability to prepare defenses. What is said and done in discovery should be taken very seriously as discovery responses are admissible in evidence at hearings in your case. Discovery is generally necessary whether the case is to be settled or litigated. In order to properly settle the case, your attorney must have a general awareness of the facts involved in your case, particularly the financial facts. If the case is to be litigated, discovery is necessary in order to properly prepare and present the case at a final hearing. Family Court cases are not necessarily won by who is right; but, rather, are often times won by who does the better preparation. Formal discovery under the Kansas Rules of Civil Procedure generally consists of the following:   (a) Depositions on Oral Examination: Depositions on oral examination are typically taken at one of the attorneys offices in the presence of a Court Reporter and while the deponent is under oath. You

6. Length of Case

Typically, Family Court cases take two to twelve months to complete in the Family Court, with exceptions. The Family Court Rules require that once a case is filed with the Court, that it move along in a timely manner. If not, Notice of Intent to Dismiss will be issued by the Court. The length of the case depends on many factors, many of which are not within your attorney’s control or your control. It will depend in large part upon the issues that you and your spouse chose to contest. The more issues, and the greater complexity, the longer the case will take to complete. Most attorneys will encourage you to attempt to reach agreement on as many issues as possible. The process of fully litigating each issue can be very lengthy and expensive and should be reserved for only those issues to which there should be a true disagreement.

7. Settlement of Efforts

As an attorney in the matrimonial field, your attorney’s first efforts are always directed to determine if a possibility of reconciliation exists. Only when you are satisfied that no such possibility exists, will your attorney attempt to move forward. Only clients who are certain that their marital relationship should be terminated should proceed in a divorce action. Divorce cases are devastating to the family, emotionally draining, and expensive. A divorce should be obtained only as a matter of last resort. When you are certain that no possibility of reconciliation exists, then and only then should you move forward. The disputes that you have with your spouse will either be concluded by a written agreement or by the Court making the decisions for you and your spouse regarding child custody, parenting time with children, child support, alimony, property and debt division, tax matters, attorney fees and the like. Under Kansas law, marital differences can be resolved by written settlement agreements. In order for an agreement to be truly valid, it must be signed by both parties, each of whom should be represented by separate counsel, entered into after full financial disclosure, freely and voluntarily without duress, coercion and overreaching, and

8. Motions and Contempt Hearings

Once the case is instituted in the Family Court, there may be Motions and contempt hearings before the final trial of the case. The Motions hearings involve discovery, modification or enforcement of previous Orders and the like. Contempt hearings are also typical. Contempt matters generally involve enforcement of prior Court-approved Agreements or Orders. For instance, if your spouse does not pay the support ordered, the Court has the power to not only order the payment of support, but can also find your spouse in contempt, sentence him or her to a period of confinement in a local jail of up to twelve months, impose a fine, or both. Family Court agreements and Orders should be treated reverently. The penalties involved in failure to comply can be substantial.

9. Substantive Law

In Kansas, the practice of Family Law is governed by a large body of case law (decided by our Appellate Courts), statutes (created by our Legislature), and Court Rules (promulgated by our Supreme Court). The law governing domestic relations is an ever-changing body of law. Your attorneys should attempt to keep themselves apprised of these changes as they are made. Most attorneys subscribe to many periodicals and services to enable them to do so. Each case is unique (legally, factually, or both), with its own nuances and peculiarities. Rarely are individual cases alike and subject to comparison. Throughout your case, your attorney will discuss with you the law as it specifically impacts upon your case.

10. Status, Pretrial and Final Hearings

As the case is progressing towards a final hearing, the Court will schedule a settlement conference or pretrial hearing. The purpose of a settlement conference or pretrial hearing is to make sure that the case is ready for trial and that all reasonable efforts have been exhausted to settle the issues that are otherwise to be determined by the Court. A settlement conference is more informal than a pretrial hearing. At a pretrial hearing or Settlement Conference, your presence may be required in the event that the Court or attorneys need your input, particularly on the issue of settlement. Settlement conference and pretrial hearings are usually conducted in the Judge’s chambers. After all discovery has been completed, and all efforts to settle the case have been exhausted, a final hearing will be set. The length of that final hearing will depend upon the issues. Some final hearings last only two to three hours. Others last two or more days. Typically a fully contested divorce case will take one to three days of trial time to complete on the merits. When the issue of custody is also contested, that generally will enlarge the necessary time by one or more days.

11. Post-Trial Motions

After the Court has rendered its written decision, you will have ten days from the receipt of that Order to determine whether or not you wish to challenge any part or all of the Order by post-trial Motion. If you and your attorney determine that it is best to challenge the Order, then it will be necessary for your attorney to do a Motion to Reconsider. In such a Motion, your attorney will point out specific errors to the Court or omissions, and request that the Order be amended accordingly. The Court can dispose of that Motion by hearing, or without hearing just on briefs.

12. Appeals

Within thirty days of the Court issuing its last Order in the matter, you have the right to appeal to our appellate Courts. That appeal is initially made to the Kansas Court of Appeals. Appeals are very expensive and generally take somewhere between twelve and eighteen months to complete. The appeal process involves securing transcripts of all of the proceedings in the Family Court, copies of the exhibits and the like, and then having all of the pertinent portions of the lower Court records bound into volumes and represented to the appellate Court. That becomes the Record on Appeal. Once the Record on Appeal is completed, the spouse who appeals must present a written Appellant’s Brief. The opposing spouse then has the opportunity to present what is called a Respondent’s Brief, to which the appealing spouse has the right to enter a Reply Brief. These Briefs set forth your legal position on the facts and law as they apply to your case. In addition to appealing final decisions, there are also procedures to go before the appellate Court to challenge the implementation of Orders, such as by a Supersedeas or Petition for Stay. Those are called extraordinary writs. After

13. Clean Up and Implementation

When your case has been settled by agreement, or litigated to a conclusion by the Court, your attorney will then make an attempt to bring closure to the case by writing letters detailing who is to do what and making sure that appropriate deeds have been completed and recorded, Qualified Domestic Relations Orders are appropriately transmitted dividing retirement plans and the like, and important papers are returned to the client. Under Kansas law, some portions of a will become void upon divorce. If your matrimonial attorney does not do wills or trusts, your attorney will be happy to refer you to an attorney who specializes in that area of the law.

14. Enforcement

After the case is completed, there may come a time when your spouse does not do what has been agreed or ordered. If that is the case, your attorney will generally request compliance on your behalf, if you ask your attorney to do so. Your attorney will then bring an appropriate enforcement action in the Family Court, as discussed above.

15. Modification

In certain instances, the Family Court can modify prior agreements and Court Orders. Generally speaking, matters relating to the divorce and property division are not subject to modification. However, certain forms of support, particularly alimony and child support are subject to modification based upon a substantial change of conditions. Also, all matters relative to children (i.e., child custody, parenting time, child support and the like) are modifiable based upon changed circumstances which have materially affected the children. It is general good advice to do what you want to do the first time around — it is much easier to get the job done in the first instance, rather than to come back later and to change a prior Order.

16. Fees and Costs

After your attorney has some general idea of what you would like the attorney to do on your behalf, your attorney will discuss the issues of fees and costs. A written fee agreement will be signed by you and the attorney who will be primarily responsible for your case. That fee agreement will generally provide for a retainer, hourly rates for your attorney and staff, and for the payment of costs.