As a divorce lawyer in Denver, I have seen various changes to the divorce process over the years. In the olden days (late 1990’s to early 2000’s), the divorce process consisted of essentially two phases: temporary orders and permanent orders. In the early part of the last decade, the Colorado legislature decided it would be more efficient to add a third stage, the initial status conference. The purpose of this conference was supposed to be an opportunity for the court to get a handle on each case, and perhaps assist in how it progresses, early on. This supposed to be efficient procedure has now lead to the third divorce stage or event, yet the process is no more efficient today than a decade ago. This posting will focus on the purpose and timing of each of the three stages:
1. INITIAL STATUS CONFERENCE: Pursuant to current Colorado statute, each new divorce, and custody, case is required to have an initial status conference with the court roughly 40 days from when the case is filed. The initial status conference is designed to be essentially an opportunity for the parties to inform the court of the issues, discuss how to deal with experts or other contested aspects of the case, and to assess potential time frames for future events. Statute also authorizes the entry of emergency orders at the initial status conference, such as orders regarding emergency support or visitation. Our family law attorneys see the various courts throughout the metro area doing differing things. In Adams County and Douglas, the ISC is conducted with the family court facilitator, who is not a judge or magistrate. As such, orders will not be entered at the ISC. In Arapahoe County, the ISC will be heard by a Magistrate, who is a judge, or judge like figure, and who can enter orders. At the initial conference, beyond discussing progression of the case, either party can ask the court for a temporary orders hearing, which will be discussed below as stage 2. For the ISC, parties are generally required to have their financial disclosures completed and to have taken the mandatory one-time parenting class. For the ISC, attorneys should be prepared to discuss expert witness, most certainly whether a child and family investigator will be needed. The ISC can also be a time to discuss discovery issues or the filing of any motions, which cannot be done in most instances without permission from the court.
In many cases, particularly those in those in which temporary orders are not needed, the ISC can be wasteful of time and resources (attorney fees). Fortunately, if both parties are represented by attorneys, they can opt out of the initial conference through the filing of a “Stipulated Case Management Plan.” This plan informs the court as to how the parties will proceed with the case, expert witnesses, etc. Many courts require you to show up for the ISC if you are wanting a temporary orders hearing. Therefore, you and your attorney should be certain you don’t need that hearing prior to waiving the ISC.
2. TEMPORARY ORDERS: In any Colorado custody or divorce case, either party is allowed, pursuant to C.R.S. 14-10-108, to ask the court for temporary orders. Temporary orders are orders that govern from while the case is pending until final orders are entered. In most instances, the issues heard at a temporary orders hearing will relate to temporary visitation, temporary support, temporary payment of marital obligations, and sometimes temporary use of martial property, such as use of the marital home. Orders entered at this hearing are not supposed to prejudice either party for purposes of permanent orders, which is stage 3 below. Regardless, most divorce and custody attorneys know that what visitation schedule or alimony amount that gets set a temporary orders can have an effect when it comes time for final orders to be decided. Therefore, temporary orders are important from both a present and future standpoint. In most jurisdictions, temporary orders are heard by a magistrate, not a judge. At temporary orders, the court cannot decide final custody or final division of property. Those issues are specifically for a judge to decide at permanent orders. As divorce and custody cases can take over a year in some jurisdiction, it is important to get temporary orders in place which will protect you and your children while the case lingers on. Temporary orders hearings will generally take place roughly 2 to 4 months from when the case is filed, depending on which jurisdiction the case is in.
3. PERMANENT ORDERS: The final stage of a Colorado divorce case is permanent orders. This is the “final” hearing and the one that ultimately matters most. At this hearing, a judge will determine all of the contested divorce issues, including final property and debt division, alimony (including how much and for how long), custody, which can include residential and decision making authority, and child support. Absent fraud or undisclosed items, property and debt division orders are binding. Final custody orders regarding residential custody and decision making are binding, absent a showing of danger. Thus, this hearing is the most important as relates to the parties truly moving on with their new lives. The permanent orders hearing is also the hearing in which issues of attorney fees and child support/alimony not paid during the time the case has been pending are likely to be heard. In general, a permanent orders hearing with all issues contested will likely take at leat a half day to a day to be heard by the court. Sometimes hearings can take two days or more. With conclusion of the permanent orders hearing and the substantive orders being reduced to writing, the court will enter the decree of dissolution of marriage, thereby formally ending the marriage.
In many cases, some or all of the issues are resolved before the parties ever get to the permanent orders hearing. Even if a hearing has been set, the parties can get out of it (whether the temporary or permanent hearing) by filing a full agreement. In instances in which one or both of the parties do not have an attorney and there are children, parties will be required to go for a formality uncontested permanent orders hearing. At this uncontested hearing, the court will inquire about the agreement, whether it is fair and in the best interest of the children, etc. and then send the parties on their ways.
Fortunately, litigants in a divorce (or custody ) case have multiple opportunities to seek assitance from the court along the way. Unfortunately, the time frames for relief in terms of temporary and permanetnt orders can truly vary, depending upon which court your case is in. Your Denver divorce and custody lawyer will be able to asses those time frames and what the court will likely do at each juncture of your case.