Most of us have seen one of those dramatic courtroom movies that glamourize the court process – perhaps Tom Cruise’s fiery cross-examination of Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men, or Gregory Peck’s moving closing argument in To Kill a Mockingbird.
But litigation, the contested court process by which parties resolve their differences, is nothing like the process we see in our favorite legal thrillers. It is a long, slow, and expensive process. Many people consider it the most painful, difficult process of their lives.
What does the process entail?
Unless the parties can resolve the disputed issues in advance of trial, litigation usually culminates in a bench trial, where a single judge considers the evidence and arguments presented, and issues a ruling.
The process typically begins with a scheduling hearing, where the case is scheduled in calendar-like fashion, including deadlines for the completion of the discovery process, perhaps a date by which the parties must participate in mediation or another alternative dispute resolution process, and a trial date.
Depending on the jurisdiction, the process can take a year or longer. And it is invasive. Discovery alone can include dozens of document requests, written questions that must be answered under oath, and potentially depositions of the parties, which in Maryland can last as long as seven hours straight.
At trial, each party presents his or her evidence, including witness testimony and the introduction of documents. At the conclusion of the trial, the judge renders a ruling and, ultimately, a divorce decree.
So why would anyone subject themselves to this?
You might be thinking, “This process sounds terrible, why would anyone subject themselves to this?”
For one, it guarantees an end to the process. If your spouse or co-parent is unwilling to engage in an alternative process to resolve your issues, litigation might be your only option. The court process may be slow, but it moves predictably and inexorably to a final result, after which you can go on with your life.
In some cases, there are issues on which the parties truly cannot reach agreement. In the child custody realm, this could include child support, a parent’s relocation, mental health or substance abuse issues, or physical or psychological abuse of a child. In a financial context, there may be a dispute about alimony, a party’s actual income, the value of a party’s business, or whether a party’s trust interest or inheritance should be considered in the resolution of financial issues.
What are the alternatives?
Parties are always free to resolve their issues without resorting to a contested court process.
There are a number of alternative dispute resolution tools. Some of the more common approaches include:
- A traditional negotiation involving attorneys, where parties develop settlement offers with the assistance of their counsel, who then negotiate on behalf of their clients to resolve the issues
- Mediation, a voluntary process where the parties meet with each other and a neutral, third-party mediator, often with counsel present or advising them
- Arbitration, in which a third-party decision-maker considers a presentation of evidence and argument from each party and renders a binding decision
All of these approaches are generally less expensive and quicker than the litigation process. And this is not an exhaustive list of the out-of-court approaches available to people to resolve their divorce or child custody issues.
Which process is right for me?
In almost all divorces, parties are well served in the early stages to consider an out-of-court process.
Which process will work best for you depends on a multitude of factors, including the dynamic between you and your spouse or co-parent, the substantive issues in the case, the financial issues and wherewithal of one or both parties, any external time pressures that might be involved, and the professionals assisting the parties.
Do I have to pick just one process?
No. Typically, it makes sense to stick to one out-of-court process at a time, and hopefully your first attempt at alternative dispute resolution does the trick. But if not, you can always move to another process, including litigation.
It is important to understand that you can continue in a non-litigation process at the same time a litigation is pending. In fact, courts encourage these continued efforts to resolve the issues out-of-court, even as the court process unfolds. Think of negotiation and litigation as running on parallel tracks. They are separate and distinct processes, but they are connected, and one process often can impact another, ideally in a way that benefits your position and hastens resolution.