What is Family Court (and Will You Have to Go There?)
Family law is just one small sector of the country’s legal system. But, family law is so prominent in the legal system, that “family courts” are found in every state. This article will explain what family court is, who goes there, and anything else you need to know about it.
What is Family Court?
Family court is a type of court that has limited jurisdiction related to familial legal matters. The history behind family court is based on “equity” law. Equity law is the legal concept that focuses on equitable remedies within civil matters. This means that your divorce settlement may not result in a 50/50 split among your assets. Instead, the court focuses on an equitable division of your property. For custody, family court focuses primarily on the best interest of the child. Again, this means that a 50/50 parenting time is not guaranteed in family court.
Another common term for family court you may hear is “domestic relations” or “domestic courts.”
What type of cases does family court deal with?
Family court covers more than just divorce. Other areas of law that family law covers are:
- Foster care
- Domestic Violence and Orders of Protection
- Guardianship (some states leave this to probate court; others include it in their family law division)
- Juvenile Delinquency
- Child Support
- Spousal Support
The most common cases in family court are divorce, support issues, custody issues, and domestic violence.
Divorce is a broad umbrella term. Family courts have the authority to determine custody arrangements, support, and property division between you and your Soon-to-Be-Ex in a divorce case.
What happens in family court?
Every state has a bit of a different process depending on the type of case, but there are common threads as to what you should expect in family court.
In Illinois, for example, there are essentially three types of court dates you can attend. The first is a “status.” A status is a quick check-in with the judge. Your attorney may not even have you attend a status date. Status dates are for the judge to know any important updates on the case, and if there are any motions that need to be heard in the near future. A status can be as quick as five minutes in front of a judge. No ruling or judgment is made during a status.
To learn more about divorce in Illinois, read this piece, “6 Essential Things to Know About Divorce in Illinois.”
A “hearing” is a more formal proceeding in front of the judge. For example, you and your spouse may be in a disagreement about who should keep the family house. If you cannot settle or negotiate it out of court, you would have a hearing about it where you would present your case and your spouse would present his* case. Then, the judge would make a ruling on that issue. There can be witnesses and evidence in a hearing as well, but that is not always the case. It depends on the issue and the level of complexity of the issue itself.
Hearings last around an hour to two hours. At the end of the hearing, the judge will make a ruling just on the matter that the hearing was about, nothing else within your divorce.
Then, there’s a trial. A trial covers every issue you and your spouse have not agreed upon. Trials are lengthy and expensive. But, if there isn’t an agreement that you are comfortable with, you are entitled to a trial. At the end of the trial, the judge will decide the terms of your divorce settlement. The same goes for trials related to parenting issues. A common legal issue that goes to trial in family court is relocation. Relocation is where after a divorce, you want to move out of state with you and your husband’s child.
There are other terms and types of court dates and appearances that your attorney may mention throughout your divorce. In Illinois, for example, the final court date that finalizes your divorce is called a “Prove Up.” Here, the judge will grant you and your spouse your divorce and lay out the terms of your agreement to make sure that you and your spouse understand. After that court date and the judge signs off on your divorce agreement, congratulations, you are divorced!
You may also hear the term “Pre-Trial Conference” throughout your divorce journey as well. A pre-trial conference is a great tool that your lawyer may want to use. During these conferences, your attorney, your spouse, their attorney, and the judge talk about the issues specific to your divorce. The judge does not make any type of ruling, but instead, tells the attorneys what their ruling most likely would be. This is a useful tool because it could save you court time and costs. If your attorney knows what the judge would most likely rule, they can make strategic decisions based off of that to help you and your Soon-to-Be-Ex settle or avoid going back to court.
Something else to note about family court is that there is very rarely a jury in any type of divorce case. This means that the judge decides the terms of your settlement if you and your Soon-to-Be-Ex cannot.
Does every divorce go to family court?
No. There are ways to avoid going to court. Read about the 4 Types of Divorce to understand which model might be best for you. For example, you and your spouse and your lawyers can endeavor to negotiate an “Uncontested Divorce.” (Check out our post on how to find a good divorce lawyer here.) You could also use mediation or a collaborative divorce, where you and your spouse work things out without getting a judge involved. With mediation, for example, meetings include you, your spouse, and a neutral third party – the mediator. You and your spouse can settle disputes, and the mediator is there to make sure things do not get too heated. This can save money. Plus, you get to be in a little more control of your settlement. Mediation is particularly good if you believe you and your spouse can come to an amicable agreement.
If you wonder what else you must know and what else you should be doing as a woman preparing for divorce, we urge you to stay committed to you and read “Your 55 Must-Do’s on Your Modern Divorce Checklist.”
Family court covers a wide variety of civil cases, but since you are here on our website SAS for Women, chances are you are dealing with divorce in some way. Just know, you may never go to family court, or you may go just once, or you may be in court for a week for trial. It’s also important to understand that family court was created for a reason, often to protect women and in particular the rights of children. You can read more about divorce laws and their history in the United States here; while this article, in particular, gives you a synopsis of what to expect when you go to court, and how to avoid going to court during your divorce process.
Alexa Valenzisi is a 3L student in Chicago who is committed to child law and education law. She aims to work in education law or family law after graduation.
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*We support same-sex marriages. For the sake of simplicity in this article, however, we refer to your spouse as your “husband” or a “he.”