What does “going to court” mean? That depends on whether you’re referring to the world of prime-time television (L.A. Law for my generation) or the real world of family law litigation. On prime-time television, it means filing an action and a short time later having a full hearing before a judge with everything wrapped up within an hour. The real world is much different.
Going to court very rarely means going directly before a judge, but it varies somewhat from county to county in Pennsylvania. I’ll deal here with court actions involving 1) divorce and distribution of property; 2) financial support; and 3) child custody. To start any of these actions, someone must file a complaint with the court, which is the document summarizing what you’re asking the court to do. From that point, the different actions take three different roller coaster rides. In most central Pennsylvania counties, there may be three different judges handling the three different court actions simultaneously or at different times.
Divorce. Before you go to court on a divorce action, you must have all the information ready and waiting to present to the court. This process can easily take months, if not years, to complete. In most central Pennsylvania counties, when your divorce action is ready to be decided by the court, you go to a divorce Master. A divorce Master is an attorney who works for the county, appointed by the court to basically act as a judge, without the black robe. The divorce master holds a hearing, with testimony from the parties, fact witnesses and expert witnesses, exhibits, objections, arguments, and all the other trappings of a modern court experience. Then he or she makes a recommendation to the court about what should happen in the divorce action. If either party is unhappy with the recommendation, he or she can request argument before the trial court and the attorneys go before a judge to argue their client’s side of the disputed issues. Either side can appeal the trial court’s decision to the Superior Court and then either side can ask that the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania review the Superior Court’s decision. It can be a very long, expensive, complicated, frustrating, tortured path from beginning to end in divorce litigation.
Financial support. Financial support includes both child and spousal support and is handled by each county’s Domestic Relations Office. The first step in the domestic relations process is a conference with a domestic relations conference officer. Although this is not a formal court hearing, the conference officer will gather information about both parties’ incomes and expenses and make a decision regarding child and spousal support. If either party is unhappy with the conference officer’s decision, he or she can request a new hearing before either a judge or a support Master, depending on the county’s specific procedures. At the hearing, which may last from 15 minutes to several hours, both parties will have the opportunity to introduce testimony, exhibits and any other evidence relevant to the support case. Either side can appeal the trial court’s decision to the Superior Court and if not satisfied, then ask that the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania review the Superior Court’s decision. Financial support is always modifiable, based on a change in circumstances, so it’s not unusual to be back in the domestic relations process numerous times over a period of months or years.
Child custody. The courts encourage parents to reach agreements regarding custody arrangements for their children without having the court make the decision for them. The first step in this process is a custody conciliation conference or a prehearing conference, held either with a judge (very rarely) or with a custody conciliator. A custody conciliator is an attorney appointed by the court to meet with parents in an informal setting to help them reach an agreement regarding custody of their children, if possible. Depending on the county, if there is no custody order in place, the custody conciliator may or may not have the authority to recommend a custody order if the parents are unable to reach an agreement. If the parents reach an agreement at the custody conciliation, that agreement is entered as an order of court, signed by a judge and the process is done. If not, the custody action will be scheduled for a hearing before a judge. At the custody hearing (which rarely lasts as long or includes as much information as parents think it should), both parties will have the opportunity to testify, have expert witnesses testify and introduce exhibits to support their case. The judge will also speak with the children, either at the time of the hearing or at a separate time. Either side can appeal the trial court’s decision to the Superior Court and if not satisfied, then ask that the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania review the Superior Court’s decision. Since child custody is always modifiable, parents may be repeating some or all of this process many times until their children reach age 18.
My advice is to avoid litigation if at all possible, which will probably save you time, energy and money. Use the court system only as a last resort, if you’re absolutely unable to reach an agreement.