If you are thinking about trial, and trying to figure out what a trial actually entails, I highly recommend you read “9 Things to Keep in Mind for a Family Law Trial” first, and then come back to this post. Your trial should go a lot smoother if you follow the tips in that blog first.
The information below is Clark County, Washington specific, so please consult with an attorney in your jurisdiction before following the information below.
What Does the Actual Trial Look Like?
Again, the majority of family law matters settle before they get to trial. However, if your case is past the point of settling and you have a trial coming up, you need to prepare for what the actual trial looks like – and it isn’t like the movies. The steps outlined below will hopefully help you prepare for the day of trial, and ideally put you in a better spot to put your best evidence forward instead of getting bogged down in procedural issues.
1. Who is Present
Trial involves you, your attorney if you have one, the other party, their attorney if they have one, the Judge, the Judge’s Clerk, and any witnesses. The whole courtroom is reserved for your case only. People can sit and watch, but it is likely the Judge will ask who they are first before continuing with the trial. If there are any witnesses, the Judge will likely ask them to wait outside. Each party gets to use a table in the front of the courtroom, and that is where you will sit for the majority of trial (unless you go on the witness stand). You can organize your documents on this table however you would like.
I recommend you arrive at the assigned courtroom at least 30 minutes before the time your trial is supposed to start. This should give you time to lay out your documents in a way that is helpful, and give you time to get water and go to the bathroom. Your case is the only one in front of the Judge, so trial will start at the assigned time (or within a few minutes of the start time). If either party submitted exhibits prior to the trial date, you should also be receiving a proposed exhibit index from the Clerk. You need to use this document to cross reference your set of exhibits when you discuss them in the trial itself. The Clerk and Judge will be going off the list the Clerk provided you, so make sure you have a system in place for easy reference.
3. Court Day Breakdown
The court day is made up of a morning session, mid-morning break, lunch, afternoon session, and mid-afternoon break. The morning session runs from 9:00 am to 12:00 pm. The mid-morning break takes place at about 10:15 am and lasts about 15 minutes. Lunch is from 12:00 pm to 1:30 pm. The afternoon session runs from 1:30 pm to 4:30 pm, and the mid-afternoon break takes place at about 2:45 pm and lasts about 15 minutes. The breaks themselves can be longer or shorter based on the parties’ preference and the Judge’s discretion. If necessary, you can always ask for additional breaks as well. Typically, the Judge likes to take breaks at a natural stopping point, like between witness testimony, or between direct and cross examination.
Sometimes cases have pre-trial motions or issues that need to be heard by the Judge prior to trial officially starting (i.e. starting with opening statements). The motions and issues most times take the form of Motions in Limine. These can be for a variety of things, but the main goal is to suppress evidence or witnesses the other party wants to present because of some bad action by the other party (i.e. the other party doesn’t answer discovery before trial, the other party doesn’t provide a witness list by the assigned date, etc.). I highly recommend you speak with an attorney if you think you might need to file one of these motions. Ultimately, the Judge will hear arguments from both parties on each motion or issue, and make a ruling prior to trial starting.
5. Opening Statements
Once both parties and the Judge are ready to start the trial itself, each party will get approximately five minutes to give their opening statements. Your opening statement should be a very brief summary of what the issues are and what you will be presenting to the Judge throughout the trial. At least a few of your sentences should start with “The evidence will show….” Whoever the Petitioner is will go first for the opening statements, case-in-chief, and closing statements, all discussed in more detail below.
Each party gets to present their arguments to the Judge during their case-in-chief. During your case-in-chief, whether you go first or second, you will go through your witness list and have your witnesses sit at the witness stand and testify. The process involves getting your witness from the waiting room, having the Judge swear the witness in, and asking the questions you wrote out before the trial, as well as any other questions you think of as you are going through their testimony (direct examination). While you are asking questions, you can enter exhibits if the witness is associated with them (i.e. an email they wrote, pay stubs they can verify, etc.). There is a section outlining how to enter the exhibits below. Once you are done asking your questions, you will say “no further questions.” Then the other party will get the chance to ask your witness questions (cross examination). Once the other party is done asking your witness questions, you will get the opportunity to ask your witness additional questions based on the other party’s questions and the witness’ testimony (re-direct examination). There are rules that govern what kind of questions you can ask, which is outlined in a different section below. It is possible that the Judge will ask the witness questions as well. Your case-in-chief is also when you get to testify and enter exhibits, but you will be doing more of a narrative statement rather than asking yourself questions. Once you have presented all of your witnesses and exhibits, you can let the Judge know that you have no further witnesses. Your case-in-chief shouldn’t take longer than half of the allotted time for trial if you can help it. If it becomes clear that you will take more than your allotted time, it is likely the Judge will ask you how much longer you think you will need, and ask the other party how much time they think they will need. It is possible the Judge could schedule an additional trial date to make sure everyone has adequate time to present their case, or the Judge could request that you finish your case-in-chief sooner than you were expecting.
7. Opposing Party’s Case-in-chief
The opposing party’s case-in-chief will operate like your case-in-chief, but you will be the one asking questions after the other party asks questions (cross examination). You can also enter exhibits if you have something the other party’s witness can attest to (i.e. emails, letters, pictures, texts, etc.). Once the other party has presented all of their witnesses and exhibits, they will let the Judge know that they have no further witnesses. The other party’s case-in-chief should also not take longer than half of the allotted time for trial.
8. Rules of Evidence
The Rules of Evidence can be found Here. The Rules of Evidence govern questions you are able to ask witnesses and exhibits you are able to enter. If the other party asks a question or tries to enter an exhibit that doesn’t follow the Rules of Evidence, then you are able to object. You need to interrupt after the question is asked, or exhibit is introduced, and say “objection, __________(reason for objection under the rules).” The Judge will then allow the other party to respond to the objection before the Judge makes a ruling on whether or not the objection is sustained (the other party has to ask the question differently or the exhibit doesn’t get entered), or overruled (the other party can keep doing what they were doing). Of course, this also means that the other party is able to object to questions you ask or exhibits you are trying to enter. The process of entering documents as exhibits is governed mostly by ER 901, 902, 903, and 904. Ultimately, you need to ask questions in a way that explains to the Judge what the exhibit is (what it is, what it says, who was the author, when it was created, etc.), before asking the Judge to have it entered as an exhibit. Since it is very possible that the other party may be objecting to things you say or attempt to enter as an exhibit at trial, I have included a website with a list of common objections and when they might come up. Try not to get flustered if the other party objects to something – simply give the Judge your reasons for your position or rephrase the question.
9. Closing Statements
Once both parties have completed their case-in-chief, each party will get approximately five minutes to give their closing statements. Your closing statement should be a very brief summary of what the issues are and what was presented to the Judge throughout the trial. At least a few of your sentences should start with “The evidence made clear….”
After both parties have given their closing statements, the Judge will issue a ruling in one of a few possible ways:
- a) right after the parties finish their closing statements.
- b) after a brief break once closing statements are finished.
- c) the Judge will set another court date a few weeks out to give an oral ruling then.
- d) the Judge anticipates making a ruling in a few weeks, and will mail you the final orders.
I highly recommend you take concise notes at this stage, since you will either have to draft the final orders yourself, review the final orders the other party drafts, or know when the final orders will be done.
Going through a trial can be stressful and scary, and the points above don’t encompass everything that might happen during your trial. However, this is the process you should follow in order to get the information you want the Judge to consider in front of them. Even attorneys find trial difficult, so I highly recommend you contact my office to set up a meeting if you have any questions.
Other Family Law Trial Resources
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Every legal issue is very unique. Accordingly, the information in this blog is intended as general education material and not as legal advice. If you think you may have a legal issue, you should consult an attorney.