Having one's “day in court” sounds like a satisfying resolution to what may have been a long and drawn-out divorce. Unfortunately, for those Minnesota couples whose divorce cannot be resolved by settlement before trial, the reality of trial is almost always disappointing.
A small minority of Minnesota divorce cases actually go to trial. Most are settled, either through mediation or other alternative dispute resolution, early neutral evaluation, or a series of negotiations between the parties and their attorneys. Those that remain are usually the most contentious cases, and the most expensive, as attorneys are forced to spend many hours on discovery, trial preparation, and the trial itself. Few Minnesota divorce trials take less than a day, and some may take more, if there are many witnesses and contested issues.
Many people who are getting divorced have not been involved in litigation prior to that point, and may not know what to expect. Some people are surprised to learn that there is no option for a jury trial in a divorce; the matter will be heard and decided by a judge.
A judge is not the only one who will hear all of the evidence presented, however. Minnesota divorce trials are proceedings in open court, which means anyone may walk into the courtroom and hear all of your most personal business. If the thought of neighbors, colleagues, and complete strangers being able to hear every detail of your marriage's breakdown disturbs you, you may want to think twice about pushing for a trial.
In the trial itself, both parties get to present evidence, including witness testimony regarding such things as financial matters and parental fitness. The parties themselves will give testimony, and will be questioned by their spouse's attorney as well as their own. As you can imagine, this is usually a very stressful experience, especially considering all that is at stake.
It is common in divorce trials for parents to be awarded joint legal custody. In order for joint physical custody to be awarded, generally parents need to have good communication and methods for resolving conflict. However we are seeing an increasing number of cases where the Courts are ordering joint physical custody even for couples who are very contentious. If child custody has been contested, as it often is in cases that go to trial, the court has likely ordered a custody evaluator to make an investigation and prepare a report with recommendations. If that did not cause the case to settle, the custody evaluator will testify regarding his or her findings at the trial.
On television, trials typically wrap up with dramatic closing arguments, followed by a swift ruling from the judge. Divorce litigants in Minnesota who are expecting such quick and definitive closure are in for a disappointment. There are usually no closing arguments in a divorce trial, nor does the judge issue an immediate decree. Instead, both attorneys will submit, within 30 days after trial, a proposed order containing the terms they would like in the divorce judgment, along with a memorandum of law in support of their proposal. The judge then has up to 90 days after the trial to choose one of these proposed orders or will create a new order based on portions of both proposed orders and will sign it. This process is anything but the dramatic argument and swift ruling seen on television.
We have a tendency to think of judges as wise men and women who have greater wisdom than most people about what should be done in most situations. While most judges are learned and dedicated to doing a good job, what they know is the law, and only the facts which are brought before them. When it comes to your marriage and your children, the judge is a stranger, and you are an expert. The judge can only do what he or she thinks is best and most fair based on the limited information received as evidence at trial.
Until your case actually proceeds to trial, you and your children's other parent have the power to craft a settlement that truly works best for your family, taking into account your unique children, their needs and schedules, as well as your own. Some people hold out for a trial thinking that the judge will recognize that their position is correct and punish their spouse. But even an apparent “winner” in a divorce trial pays a heavy price, quite literally in terms of legal fees, and very often sees increased hostility between the parties. Not only are the parties faced with the stress from this increased hostility, but the children are also negatively impacted, feeling put in the middle of their parents' conflict or facing stress they may not understand.
If your Minnesota divorce case appears to be headed toward trial, an experienced family law attorney can help you work toward an appropriate settlement, or advocate for your needs if a trial is unavoidable. Please contact us at Mundahl Law with any questions you have about the Minnesota divorce trial process. We look forward to working with you.