Family Law

What to Expect in a Divorce Pretrial Hearing

You’re divorce is almost over when you receive a notice of a pretrial conference. Learn more about what you can expect and how to prepare for your pretrial hearing.
Updated: Feb 19th, 2019

Overview of Divorce Process

Your divorce begins when either spouse files a petition for divorce (also called a “divorce complaint”) and properly serves it on the other spouse. There are strict deadlines for responding to a divorce petition. At this point, the receiving spouse can file an answer to the divorce petition or accept the divorce complaint’s terms. A spouse who doesn’t file a response to the complaint risks having a default divorce entered. Once a spouse files an answer, the divorce case will proceed through the discovery process and eventually trial.

Alternatively, a couple can settle their case at any time before trial. You and your spouse can hire a mediator, attend a settlement conference or try to work out an agreement on your own. It’s important to ensure that any settlement agreement addresses all issues in your divorce. Any issues not resolved in a settlement must be decided at trial. Yet, before you get to trial, you or your attorney will need to attend a pretrial conference.

When Will a Judge Schedule a Pretrial Conference?

A pretrial conference is usually one of the last steps in your case before trial. Depending on the complexity of your case and the judge’s schedule, a pretrial conference may happen a few weeks or a few months before your trial. The purpose of a pretrial conference is to help a judge understand what issues still need to be resolved at trial. If your judge has an extremely busy schedule, or it looks like you’ll have a long divorce trial, you may have to wait several months to have your day in court. In some cases, a judge will require divorcing couples to attend a final settlement conference before setting a case for trial.

What Happens at a Pretrial Conference?

At a pretrial conference you or your attorney has the chance to present the remaining issues in your case. By the time a pretrial conference rolls around, you’ve probably accomplished most of the discovery in your case and know what issues remain. You and your spouse may have even attended mediation and resolved some aspects of your divorce. However, any issues you have already agreed upon need to be resolved at trial. A pretrial conference can help a judge understand what issues are left to resolve and approximately how long your trial will take.

You or your attorney will have already done significant preparation before a pretrial conference. A judge may require each spouse to submit pretrial disclosures and discuss that information at the pretrial conference. Your disclosures will list your potential witnesses, the evidence you plan to present, and the issues to be decided at trial.

Most of the information you’ll need to prepare your disclosures was probably uncovered during the divorce discovery process. During discovery, you and your spouse had to supply financial disclosures, submit interrogatories, attend depositions, and maybe even participate in custody evaluations. During the discovery process you probably discovered all your spouse’s assets and debts, income information, and you may have a good idea about your chances at getting alimony, child support, and/or custody at trial.

Who Attends a Pretrial Conference?

Depending on where you live, you may not need to attend a pretrial conference. Your attorney might be able to appear on your behalf. In some situations, a judge may prefer to consult only with the attorneys involved. For example, a judge may take each attorney back in chambers to discuss each side’s stance on certain issues, find out what witnesses will be presented, discuss any potential expert testimony, and get an overall feeling for the case. This allows for more privacy in a divorce because matters discussed in chambers are not part of the public record.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • I have a pretrial conference scheduled, but my spouse and I settled our case. Do I still need to attend the pretrial hearing?
  • I need my divorce completed quickly because I’m planning to move out of the country with my children. Is the pretrial conference the right place to ask a judge to expedite my divorce?
  • Do I need to attend my pretrial conference if I’m traveling for work? Can my attorney attend on my behalf?

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