What happens during a Family Court Trial?

What happens during a Family Court trial?

By M. J. Goodwin

 

In Anderson County, South Carolina, a litigant can expect a wait of at least one year before a day long trial in a divorce or custody case.  A “day” of trial is a huge amount of Court time to be spent on one matter.  It amounts to about 7 hours of actual hearing time.  While it is a huge amount of the Judge’s time, it is a blink of an eye in a litigant’s life.  This should be a frightening reality for most litigants.

What happens during that 7 hours?

The Plaintiff goes first.  The Plaintiff’s attorney will call witnesses that support the Plaintiff’s position.  If each witness takes 30 minutes to an hour, the Plaintiff calls around three witnesses.  The testimony that will be heard varies dramatically from case to case.  But it must all be admissible evidence.  The testimony and evidence presented must comply with the Rules of Evidence.  So hearsay is not admissible.  The witnesses must testify from their own knowledge or expertise (in the case of expert witnesses).  The Plaintiff’s attorney will examine the witness first; then the Defense attorney gets to cross examine the witness.  Those questions are usually harder to answer and expose weaknesses or biases that may exist in the Plaintiff’s case.  Once the Plaintiff has rested the Plaintiff’s case, it is the Defendant’s turn to present evidence.  The same rules apply.  Attorneys may ask to call certain witnesses out of order.  This is usually done by agreement.

If there is a Guardian ad Litem, he or she also participates in questioning witnesses and can also call his or her own witnesses.  The Guardian ad Litem will also present his or her final report.

The Judge may also ask questions of the witnesses if the Judge so desires.

Once all the testimony and evidence are presented, the Judge will deliberate and make his or her ruling, which will be reduced to a written final order or “Decree.”  This order will govern the conduct of the parties unless it is changed by future litigation, whether appellate or a “change of circumstances” as to child related issues.

It is virtually impossible to present a detailed view of a complex issue or a lengthy marriage in a “day” of Court.  So more than one day may be required.  If the necessary number of days are not requested initially, a significant delay in completion of the case may result as the Court searches for a “day” here and a “day” there to schedule completion of the case.  The case does not automatically carry over to the next day.  Those next days are already scheduled well in advance.  Carrying over days may also result in unexpected travel for litigants if the Judge is a “visiting” judge that does not usually hold Court in the county of litigation.

A trial is a complex procedure designed to reveal the truth and allow the Court to make fair, equitable decisions regarding the most important building block of our society:  the family.

M. J. Goodwin has practiced law and participated in Family Court trials for more than 22 years.  M. J. Goodwin can be reached at 864-375-0909 or at mj@mjgoodwin.com

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