This is one of the great “myths” of divorce that I hear on Long Island all the time. Just last week a couple came in to discuss mediating their divorce rather than going through the process of contested divorce with two attorneys. The husband insisted that there was no way that any mediator could help resolve the various issues, and that what he wanted was to go to court, explain it all to the judge, and then get a decision right then and there. He felt that they could be in court in a couple of week, present their case to the judge, and be done in a month or so. He seemed to think that it would be like Judge Judy on television.
I explained to him that the process worked rather differently. First, one of the attorneys must request the assignment of the case to a judge. Then, within 45 days, the assigned judge will hold what is called a Preliminary Conference. Before that first court date each of you has to complete a financial disclosure form, called a Net Worth Statement, which is a sworn document that lays out all of your income and expenses, assets and liabilities, and certain other information. It can take quite some time to assemble all the documents that you need and to them prepare the Net Worth Statement.
You will then make your first appearance in Court. Typically, you will each sit in the hallway or on the benches at the back of the Courtroom while your attorneys exchange the Net Worth Statements (which actually should have been done at least a week earlier), fill out a long set of papers laying out a schedule for various things that need to be done, and discuss how to deal with some temporary issues. At some point your attorneys will then meet with the Judge’s law secretary, an attorney who works for the Judge to help manage the routine aspects of a case, who will discuss the basic issues of the case with the attorneys, review and either agree with or modify the schedule the attorneys have come up with, and try to deal with any pressing issues. This conference takes place in chambers, out of sign of you and your spouse, and is not open to either of you. Sometimes the Judge will handle that conference him or herself. There are Judges who will handle these matters from the bench in open court, but not many do, as it is so time consuming.
When the Preliminary Conference schedule is finally agreed upon the parties all sign it, the attorneys sign it, and the Judge then signs it. You then leave for the day.
You will notice that nowhere in this series of events have you had the opportunity to address the Judge. This isn’t Divorce Court on TV. It takes years to get to the point of a trial. Even then, you don’t speak to the Judge; you answer questions put to you by your lawyer and by your spouse’s lawyer. Sometimes there are preliminary or emergency hearings along the way, but they are rare.
The reality is that you are most likely to get to tell your story over a conference table in a mediator’s office, where you and your spouse are the major players, but lawyers and judges.
Think about it.