Although the term “typical case” is a misnomer, there are certain goals to be met as you wind your way through the local court process. I say goals because the judge has the discretion to adjust the times as may be necessary in each unique case. Life is messy and court is messier, sometimes not fitting into a specific timeline. We’re fortunate to have an official Family Court in Pitt County, staffed with three individuals. They keep the process moving along, by means of local court rules, the development of certain standardized forms to use in routine administrative matters and expedited communication with the judges concerning the most efficient way to handle issues that crop up as the case moves forward. The court expects the case to be resolved within a year if possible.
Phase One: File the Lawsuit
A family law case is filed at the courthouse by a Complaint, followed by an Answer and Counterclaims in response, and other filings. This process of putting the court and the other party on notice of what relief each party seeks can take up to 6 months after the case is filed. In the meantime, the court might hold hearings on temporary (until the case is finished) child custody, child support or alimony within 2 months after the case is filed. The parties might also choose to use discovery, which might require a deposition, paperwork to be exchanged, or written answers to specific questions by the other party. Discovery by one or both parties can easily take 2-3 months. The party who files for equitable distribution, the division of marital assets, first must complete a very detailed listing of assets and debts called an EDIA, and the other party then files his or her version. This process takes at least 4 months.
Phase Two: Negotiation and Mediation
Although clients usually know what property and debt there is, and the income of each party, the attorneys don’t really know until he or she reviews the actual evidence (the tax returns, pay statements, self-employment, etc.). Once the attorneys have a general idea of the scope of the marital estate and what the actual disputes are, they can each then decide the best strategy to use. Another fundamental task is to figure out whether the parties already agree on certain matters, such as listing the residence for sale and dividing the proceeds.
When a custody case is filed, parents are automatically required to participate in child custody mediation. If they are successful, parents can expect the court to finalize any custody agreement within 2 to 5 months after the case is filed. Our local court rules also require the parties to use financial mediation for all other matters, such as alimony and equitable distribution, before they are given a trial date. The goal is to complete mediation within 7 months.
Phase Three: Launch Sequence Activated
If there is no agreement after mediation, the cost begins to skyrocket because court is the only option unless the parties choose to use arbitration. Then, there is a significant and expensive amount “busywork” before and trial preparation that must take place.
For example, in equitable distribution cases, within 7 months after the case is filed, the attorneys for the parties prepare a “cheat sheet” for the judge called a pre-trial order. Clients sign it. For lack of a better description, it means they agree to disagree. In other words, they are telling the judge in writing which things they want the judge to decide. It also includes stipulations, which are written agreements. They might agree that an asset is marital asset but not agree who keeps it. Other disputes can involve whether the asset or debt exists, whether it is marital or separate, what the value should be, and who keeps it or if it is a debt, who is responsible for payment of it. For both alimony and equitable distribution cases, trials should take place 9 months after the lawsuit is filed, and the order should be signed by the judge and entered within 12 months. The court expects child custody cases to be finalized by a judge’s ruling within 6 months.