Arizona Family Court Trial Procedures

Executive Summary

  • When a divorcing couple cannot agree on all aspects of the dissolution, such as the division of marital assets, their contested divorce will go to family court.
  • Family court trials are planned per the judge’s case schedule. Due to consistent backlogs, these court dates are usually several months out.
  • Contested divorce trials involve several steps, including opening statements, evidence presentation, testimonies, closing arguments, and a final judgment.
  • A qualified attorney can help you prepare for your trial procedures, explain each step and facilitate the best possible outcome.

Understanding Arizona’s Family Court Trial Procedures

Many separating spouses do not know what to expect from their family court trial. Knowing how the trial procedures work could save you time, money and heartache. Getting advice from an expert family law attorney is critical if you are going through a contested divorce.

Divorces are never ideal, but if they do happen, the best-case scenario is for both parties to amicably create an agreement before going to court, rendering the divorce uncontested and allowing both parties to skip court trials that drain time and money. If you and your soon-to-be ex-spouse cannot agree on everything, the divorce would be contested, and a family court would make rulings for any lingering disagreements, such as the division of marital assets and the custody of children.

Whether you are going through a contested or uncontested divorce, knowing about standard procedures in family court can help you prepare and gauge what timeline and expenses to expect.

Divorce Cases and Family Court

When the two parties cannot agree on the division of marital assets, the custody of the children and other relevant issues, it leads to a contested divorce, meaning it is up to the family court to make those decisions. The United States family court system works hard to ensure those decisions are fair and equitable, but having proper representation in your corner is still essential.

Reaching a Settlement During a Contested Divorce

In the vast majority of divorce proceedings, there will be a settlement. Sometimes, these arrangements are the result of an informal negotiation between the two divorce attorneys and the soon-to-be ex-spouses. In other cases, the agreement results from a structured proceeding like mediation or collaborative law—regardless of how you get there, reaching a satisfactory settlement before receiving a ruling from a judge saves money and time.

What if the Divorcing Spouses Cannot Agree on a Settlement

In some cases, the two parties cannot reach an amenable agreement—maybe one spouse is demanding an unrealistically high settlement, and the other is unwilling to go along. These disagreements may revolve around different topics like:

  • Distribution of marital assets, including company pensions and retirement savings plans.
  • Where the two parties will live, and who will get the home.
  • Who should have primary custody of the children, if applicable.

With disputes like these, a family court, also known as a civil court, will hear the case. These courts handle divorce proceedings at the county and district levels. Divorce cases are assigned to the court where the divorce petition was initially filed.

In most states, including Arizona, a single judge presides over the trial—very few states allow jury trials for family law cases, despite that being a good way to diversify opinions and minimize bias in other forms of law.

Family Court Trial Scheduling

Unfortunately, the family court system is notoriously slow. Trial dates are scheduled on the court calendar, which is essentially the judge’s case schedule. There is usually a sizable backlog of cases on the docket, which can force divorcing spouses to wait several months for a trial date. Generally, the larger your county is, the longer you will have to wait for your family court trial. Plus, court calendars are constantly in flux, leaving your case vulnerable to additional delays even after waiting for the judge to work through the expected backlog.

Some delays can also occur if you, your soon-to-be ex-spouse or your legal representation requests them. Under A.R.S. 41-1092.05, Arizona courts can postpone hearings for good cause. Some examples of internal events that can lead to continuances are:

  • Deaths in the family
  • Sudden injuries like a car accident
  • Debilitating illnesses
  • Critical scheduling conflicts like unavoidable work trips
  • Unavailable witnesses

Divorcing couples should consult with respective divorce attorneys that they trust to help them prepare for their hearings. Qualified attorneys can ensure that you have everything in order to minimize the chance of additional delays.

Preparing For Trial

Being adequately prepared for your trial can make the process smoother and help you achieve the best possible outcome. Consulting with an experienced family law attorney is the best way to guarantee you are thoroughly prepared for your trial.

How Attorneys Can Facilitate Trial Preparation

Good attorneys know the ins and outs of the judicial system. In addition to advocating for your needs in court, your attorney should be able to walk you through exactly what to expect within each step of your unique case.

Additionally, attorneys can do a lot of legwork on their client’s behalf. For example, they can help you gather and submit all available evidence for your contested divorce case. By submitting essential documents and scheduling witness testimonies, the attorney can help you get the most you possibly can from the dissolution of your marriage.

Attorneys can also advise you when to speak in court, teach you how to be respectful to the judge and even give tips on what to wear. By helping maintain your appearance, the attorney can help you present yourself in the best light.

Preparing Your Appearance

As your attorney may mention, being appropriately dressed is vital for a formal court setting, especially in contested divorce cases. Avoid wearing worn-out, revealing clothes that could negatively affect how trustworthy and competent you come across.

It is best to be well-groomed, clean and conservatively dressed when you are in front of a judge. Appearing reliable, responsible and mature may make it easier for the judge to understand why you deserve the terms you are fighting for, such as custody over your children.

Family Court Process

Almost every contested divorce case is unique because each separating couple has different disagreements and needs. Suppose the divorcing spouses have kids together—in that case, they may be required to attend a parent education class to help them develop co-parenting tactics and soothe the emotional trauma that the divorce may cause their children. This step is skipped if the divorcing spouses do not share kids.

Still, the following steps are standard for almost all contested divorce cases.

1. Divorce Initiation

Before going to court, one party must file a divorce petition, and the other party will be served with divorce papers. Since there is a substantial waiting period to finalize the divorce, temporary orders may be issued to set rules on subjects like child custody or spousal compensation.

You and your soon-to-be ex-spouse should do everything possible to amicably craft an agreement before taking the matter to court to save time and money. Still, if the divorce is contested, your trial date will be scheduled according to court availability.

2. Opening Statements

Once in the courtroom for a contested divorce, the attorneys for each spouse first present opening statements that serve as roadmaps of the case, summarizing the situation and core disputes.

3. Presenting Evidence

Usually, the divorce petitioner is the first party to present evidence that supports why they should receive what they are asking for. Then, the other party will also present their evidence. This evidence may apply to matters such as child custody and visitation, the distribution of marital assets and financial and child support.

The evidence in a typical family court proceeding may consist of:

  • Testimony from each of the spouses
  • Witness testimony
  • Testimony by the children
  • Expert witnesses
  • Documents related to marital property and the distribution of assets

4. Witness Testimonies

If applicable, different family members and affiliates will take the stand to tell their observations from important events and overall impressions. Both parties have the right to summon witnesses for testimony.

Some topics witnesses may be asked about are:

  • A party’s moral character
  • A party’s level of responsibility
  • A party’s personal qualities
  • Worrisome moments they have witnessed, such as abuse or neglect

With insight from witnesses called up by both parties, the judge should have a more transparent look into the temperament of each party. This should make it easier to decide important things like what level of child support they should get.

Children Testimonies

Although most states do not have age requirements for witness testimonies, most minors are not asked to testify in their parents’ divorce case unless it is vital to confirm something severe like child abuse. In that case, some steps can be taken to alleviate the child’s stress, such as closing the courtroom, using a one-way camera or offering supportive programs for outside the courtroom.

5. Review

After receiving all of the documents, testimonies and other information presented, the judge will likely take a moment to review and digest the details before making a final ruling.

Until this point, either party can object to evidence and testimonies and explain why that information should not be considered evidence, whether it is false, irrelevant or against the court’s regulations. The final decision to disallow evidence is up to the judge. Still, both parties can present contrary evidence that disproves what was previously submitted or stated by the other party to help their case.

Although the judge should not act in favor of either party, they can also ask questions throughout the case to better understand the situation. After the hearing has run its course, the judge will make a final ruling that they believe is fair in accordance with the law.

Court Process and Final Judgment

To conclude the procedure, both parties can deliver a closing argument that bookends the hearing. Similar to the opening statement, the closing argument summarizes the case and reminds the judge why each party is fighting for certain terms.

Then, the judge will issue the final ruling. In that decision, the judge will grant the two parties the divorce and officially record a judgment that finalizes the divorce decree and resolves all related issues.

That final court judgment will include some issues related to the divorce, including:

  • The division of marital assets
  • The resolution of any outstanding financial matters
  • The custody and living arrangements of the minor children
  • Orders for child support and spousal maintenance

Appealing The Court’s Decision

After the family court has made its judgment, one or both spouses have the right to appeal if they disagree with the ruling, thanks to A.R.S. 25-325. However, the party must demonstrate that they have the evidence and grounds to support their appeal. Moreover, the appeal has to be filed within 30 days of the initial ruling.

If accepted, an appeal could send the case to a higher court, known as an appellate (appeals) court, which can either overturn or affirm the original ruling. If you go down this path, your attorney will help you craft multiple briefs, such as the appellate brief, to support your case. Also, as you file your appeal, you can request to give a 20-minute oral argument to supplement the briefs.

How Successful Are Appeals?

Unfortunately, most times, appeals are unsuccessful. In fact, less than 9% of all appeals from 2015 reversed a lower court’s ruling. Successful appeals usually only occur when:

  • The judge made a conclusion not supported by the facts presented in the trial.
  • There were procedural mishaps and regulations were not followed.
  • New evidence has come to light.

Most times, the trial judge’s ruling will not be reversed unless it is clearly proven that judicial discretion was abused. As a result, the majority of trial rulings are final. Therefore, you should enter your divorce proceedings as prepared as possible to increase your chances of getting a satisfactory ruling from the first judge who handles your case.

Come to Your Family Court Trial Prepared

Hopefully, when a marriage ends, both spouses can come to an equitable agreement. Even so, many divorces do not end in a fair deal and distribution of assets, but in the offices of a family court.

Whether you expect your divorce proceedings to end amicably or in family court, having a qualified attorney in your corner is crucial. The family law team at JacksonWhite Law is committed to helping the people of Arizona through their family law challenges. With decades of combined experience, we can help you prepare and achieve the best possible outcome from your divorce case.

If you are going to family court in Mesa, Arizona or the surrounding area, call the JacksonWhite Family Law Team at (480) 467-4348 to discuss your case.

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