Just a clutch of states across the nation put a divorce case on jury trial. Everywhere else, including California, a bench trial is the default – and only – option. So what’s the difference and what impact could it have on the outcome of your divorce? Should you and your soon to be ex choose to have your divorce settled in court – often a last resort, having exhausted mediation or attempts to arrive at agreement with the help of your divorce attorneys; then a bench trial is likely what you will encounter.
Bench trial vs. Jury trial By taking your divorce to court, you are leaving the final decision on what is deemed to be an equitable and fair verdict on the division of marital assets, alimony payments, and child custody, among other things, to the discretion of the court. In the case of a jury trial, a panel of individuals will decide the fate of your divorce. This option is available only in some states, so you will need to check with your divorce attorney first. Again, California does NOT have jury trials in family law cases. In a bench trial, the judge assigned your case will review all facts and evidence presented before him or her, listen to the testimony and questioning conducted in the court, and ultimately arrive at a decision. This in effect, means the power is vested in the hands of one individual. You may strike it lucky and find that the judge sympathizes with your case, or is neutral. On the flip side, some judges may take a sterner view on certain issues like a history of substance abuse and this could color the outcome.
Not everything needs to go to trial Remember, you do not need to leave everything to the courts to decide. You can work through smaller issues and even some of the bigger ones that you can agree on outside of court. It is only the areas that you reach a stalemate on, and find that mediation doesn’t help either, that you will need to have resolved in court.
What to expect during a trial Once the case reaches the court, hearings are scheduled to decide on issues like temporary child custody and alimony payments, pending the actual trial. These hearings also provide a window for your attorney to approach the court for legal action or to instruct the other party for responses, if questions your spouse is bound to answer have not been responded to within the stipulated time. Once a trial date is set, opening statements are made by the attorney for whoever filed for the divorce. This is followed by the opposition lawyer’s statement. Once each party has presented their case, and all evidence and cross examination is complete, closing arguments are made. The judge may then take some time, running to a few weeks or even a few months – depending on how complex your case is, to arrive at his or her decision.