Florida Family Court Process
If you live in Florida and are considering a divorce, or have a child with someone to whom you are not married, you may find yourself in a Florida family court. In most situations, ideally, a dispute can be resolved out of court, in mediation, or by another form of alternative dispute resolution. It is still important to understand the process of a case moving through the court system.
The first step in any Florida family law proceeding is to file a petition. The purpose of the petition is to notify the court and the other party, which is usually a spouse or co-parent, that you want the court to take a certain action, for example, to dissolve the marriage, award child support, or create a parenting plan. The petition sets forth what you are asking for, such as child support, visitation, alimony, possession of the marital home, property division, etc.
The filing party serves the petition on the other party. Then, the other side files an answer, which presents his or her side of the case to the court. If the other party does not file an answer, you can ask the court for default judgment. In a default judgment, the court generally awards the filing party whatever he or she asks for.
Discovery is the process by which the two sides exchange information. The parties answer questions under oath and provide documentation relating to the case. Often in a family law case, this includes financial information such as bank statements, credit card bills, and retirement plan statements, to determine fair amounts of child or spousal support or a fair property division.
There is some mandatory disclosure in Florida, which involves specific documents that Florida law requires the parties to exchange. However, most mandatory disclosure can be waived by the parties’ agreement.
At mediation, a neutral third party works with both parties to try to come to a mutually acceptable compromise. If the parties reach a compromise, they do not have to litigate the issue. If you cannot reach an agreement in every dispute, you can mediate some issues, but not others. On any issues for which you have not reached a compromise, you must go to trial.
If you do reach an agreement at any point, you can have an uncontested final hearing, in which a judge will issue a judgment in accordance with the terms of your agreement. However, if the agreement is manifestly unjust, such as a custody arrangement that is not in the child’s best interests, then the judge may not approve the agreement.
During the pendency of the proceedings, the parties can agree to, or if necessary ask the court for, temporary relief. This allows them to manage their affairs while the case is being resolved. For example, a party may ask for a temporary parenting plan and child support, temporary alimony, or use of the marital home.
If the parties have not come to an agreement on any issues, they must go to trial. At trial, the parties present witness testimony and other evidence to the court. Then, a judge will make a decision. Having to go to trial is not ideal because you no longer have control over the outcome. The judge has the final say, and the court’s decision does not have to align with the parties’ desires.
The mediation and litigation process in a family law case can be confusing, since most people do not have experience with the court system. If you are considering a divorce, custody proceedings, or another family law case, please contact the experienced West Palm Beach family law attorney William Wallshein for a free initial consultation.