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Understanding the First Stages of Your Family Law Case

courtroom-1-1236725-300x201By: Sarah T. McCain

When you start a family case, the first document that you will receive from the court is called the Case Management Order. This order often includes a Notice of Initial Status Conference. After working in this field for many years, I continue to be surprised by the number of individuals who simply receive these documents and set them aside, without even bothering to read them. Both documents provide important information that could be vital to ensuring that your case gets off on the right foot.  Failing to review and follow the CMO can potentially lead to negative results in your case.

First, the NOISC that you receive either provides a date in which you will meet with the court for the very first time or it provides the information on how to go about scheduling this very first meeting. This Initial Status Conference is required as part of the case, pursuant to statute, and it can only be vacated under very specific circumstances, such as when when the correct document (a Stipulated Case Management Plan) is filed to let the court know that this conference is not necessary. However, in most cases you will need to attend this conference. 

Now, in the days leading up to a scheduled Initial Status Conference, I often receive a call from my client inquiring about what exactly will take place at this conference. I believe informing the client as to the specifics of the Initial Status Conference is important, as people naturally become anxious when they don’t know what to expect.  The conference can take place either in front of the judge who will hear your case or in front of a quasi-judicial officer called a family court facilitator. The initial conferences generally only last from 10 – 15 minutes and no matter who you are in front of, the same topics will be addressed. As noted in the section below concerning the Case Management Order, the court wants to know what is going on in the case and what they can expect to happen moving forward. You should be prepared to tell the court if you have completed your sworn financial statement and provided your required financial disclosures. If there are minor children, you should also be prepared to let the court know if you have attended or at least scheduled your parenting class. Once those basics are dispensed with, the court will likely inquire into whether a Child and Family Investigator or other child custody expert is necessary. Letting the court know if an expert in this realm or any other type of expert is anticipated or even a possibility is important to giving the court an idea of how complex or lengthy your case might be.   These types of issues tie into scheduling future events.

In some family law cases, the court may be able to address immediate issues, such as resolving an interim parenting time dispute. This can only take place if you are appearing in front of the judge. A court facilitator will not be able to take such action. The court may also remind the parties that they are under C.R.S. 14-10-107 regarding the temporary injunctions or that they would like to see the financial status quo remain in place. However, the court will likely not address any other financial issues during the ISC because oftentimes financial disclosures have not yet been exchanged, thereby limiting the court’s ability to make any findings. The court does have the ability to schedule the parties for a Temporary Orders hearing to address interim issues. Be prepared to attend mediation prior to appearing at that Temporary Orders hearing. One of the most important things to remember about this very first court appearance is that while it is at court and could be in front of the judge, there is no testimony taken at this appearance and no exhibits are provided.  It is a conference, not a full-blown hearing.

Secondly, the other document that the court initially provides upon your filing is the Case Management Order. This document provides very important information including information about mediation, scheduling of hearings, sometimes procedure for hearings, deadlines, necessary documents for trial or settlement, and more.   The CMO will also contain language regarding the mandatory parenting class and where to sign up.   Additionally, the CMO may contain information on things such as not bringing your children to court or resources for victims of domestic violence.  Many CMO’s also contain information from basics, such as not bringing children to court, to more detailed information about seeking assistance if you are a victim of domestic violence.  In essence, the CMO is a good primer on the court process so you know what you can expect moving forward in terms of additional steps and requirements. 

These first parts of any family law case are very important to setting up your domestic case in the right way, including making the right impression on the court right out of the gate.  Make sure you review anything you receive from the court and educate yourself on the process.  If you have an attorney, keep in mind he or she will also be abreast of the terms of the Case Management Order and should guide you in terms of your obligation.   Of course, they will also be able to answer any questions you may have.

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