Family law cases are the most contested cases; and how could they not be? I practice family law because I think it is the most important legal field. Children and relationships are the bedrock foundations on which we build our entire lives. This article will guide you through the process of a case to final hearing or trial.
Many lawsuits settle well before the final hearings. Family cases are unique in that they often do not settle – it is, understandably, hard to compromise or settle a case where our children and our emotional connections to romantic partners are concerned.
So your family law case is heading to a final hearing. It may be heading for a trial lasting several days, or only a few hours. What can you do to prepare for the final hearing in your family case?
Step 1: Was there a pretrial hearing? Were pretrial orders issued?
Most family law cases will have a pretrial hearing, or at least some sort of hearing, before the final hearing. Courts may call it a pretrial hearing or a pretrial conference but the purpose of the hearing is the same: to get all parties in the room and prepare everyone for the coming trial.
These hearings are important because judges or hearings officers will issue orders before the trial that dictate several important deadlines. Deadlines for exhibits to be submitted, for Proposed Final Orders, and to submit lists of witnesses may all be set by the pretrial orders.
Step 2: What if there are no pretrial orders?
If the Court doesn’t issue pretrial orders, then the Family Division Rules set very important deadlines for submitted material before the final hearing. They are as follows:
Exhibits – 30 days before Final Hearing
Proposed Final Orders – 30 days before Final Hearing
Witness Lists – 30 days before Final Hearing
Financial Affidavit – 7 days before Final Hearing
Agreements between parties – 7 days before Final Hearing
Please see Family Division Rule 2.24 for more information.
Step 3: What should I use for exhibits? How do I prepare my exhibits?
The items you use as exhibits should be relevant to the final hearing and should be reliable evidence. This can be a broad and sweeping category, so it makes sense to discuss what shouldn’t be a trial exhibit, instead.
You should not use previous Court Orders as exhibits. The Court already has these in their file and does not need additional copies. You should not use documents that you or your witnesses could not ‘authenticate’ for the Court. Either you, or a witness you call, should be able to verify that the document is authentic and accurate for the Court.
I frequently see parties use social media printouts (such as printed copies of Facebook comments or Tweets), phone records, medical documents, prior agreements between the parties, emails, letters, and text messages. All of these are acceptable exhibits for evidence –as long as you can verify where they came from and show the Court that they are authentic and accurate documents.
To prepare your exhibits, make sure you make plenty of legible copies of each exhibit. You need at least one for you, one for the Court, and enough copies for all other parties involved to each have one. You may want to label them with letters or numbers (Exhibit A, Exhibit 1, etc). Double check any pretrial orders that you have, as they may specify which party should use which designations (for example, the Court may ask that the Petitioner use letters and the Respondent use numbers).
It’s good practice to have a cover sheet or table of contents detailing which exhibits are what documents. This makes it easier for a judge to access the correct exhibit at the right time.
Make sure that you provide all copies to all parties in compliance with the deadlines from the pretrial order or the Family Division Rules. Failure to do so could lead to an objection, a default judgment, or the exhibits could be precluded from the record.
Step 4: Who do I call for a witness? How do I prepare my witness list?
You may call anyone with case information to be a witness.
To prepare a witness list, list everyone who you might reasonably call. Just because a party is on a witness list doesn’t mean that they must come to court for the hearing! However, a witness can be precluded from the final hearing if they haven’t been listed on a timely-submitted witness list.
Prepare your list of potential witnesses and submit it to all other parties and to the Court in a timely manner in compliance with all Court orders and rules. The list should detail the name of each person you may call, their address, and a phone number where they can be reached.
Step 5: What do I write for my Proposed Final Orders?
You should also submit proposed Final Orders to the Court in compliance with any applicable deadlines from the Family Division Rules, and any pretrial orders.
Proposed final orders should reflect what you want to happen in your case. They are a way for the Court to see clearly what you are asking them to do in their ruling.
Depending on the case, prepare the following:
Uniform Support Order (Child Support):
Parenting Plan (Minor children / Custody):
Decree on Parenting (Unmarried parties, custody cases):
Again, all copies of proposed final orders must go to all parties in compliance with deadlines.
Step 6: It didn’t go well! What do I do now?
A final hearing or final trial isn’t necessarily the end of your case. If the judgment was not favorable, then you can file a Motion to Reconsider. Motions to Reconsider must be filed within ten days of the Final Orders and any Motion to Reconsider must contain issues you may want to appeal later on.
If the Motion to Reconsider isn’t successful then you can appeal your case to the New Hampshire Supreme Court. You have thirty days from the issuing of Final Orders to do so. Be cautious, however – the Supreme Court will not issue a new Final Decree. Instead, if they are convinced that the Final Orders were improper, they will order the case to be remanded back to the lower courts. You will then have to re-try your case all over again at another final hearing.
Finally, take note that in New Hampshire, contested divorces do not become final until their listed Judgment Day, which is 30 days after the Final Orders are issued.
If you aren’t used to doing them for a living, Final Hearings are difficult. They can be stressful, confusing, and emotionally draining. I often have clients hire me solely for their final hearings or trials to make sure that they do not miss a crucial deadline or forget to mention a critical fact. Nobody should have to go into a trial alone without an attorney to help them through and make sure that all of their rights are protected.
I offer very affordable flat rates as well as reasonable hourly rates for family law legal services, research, document preparation, trial and trial preparation. If you are heading for a Final Hearing, please contact me or call my firm at 603-622-8100 to discuss further. I offer free consults, with nighttime and weekend hours by appointment.