Family Law Trial in Washington
Trial is the method in which you present your case to a judge for a determination on how your case should be resolved. All the parties in a case can present evidence and testimony to prove their case and facts, and the trial judge takes all the information under advisement and makes a ruling on your case.
When your case has been set for trial, this means that any settlement conferences or attempts to resolve all the issues in your case were unsuccessful, and the case will be decided by a judge at trial.
How to Prepare for Trial in Washington
Gathering and Presenting Evidence
Have you gathered all the evidence to support your case and provide proof to show your testimony is accurate?
Evidence can be documents including financial records, medical records and reports, or any other records needed to prove a point or resolve an issue in your case. You can gather evidence such as your bank account records, medical records, or others records by making requests to the company or persons who have control of them. Or you may be able to access them yourself online or by making a request in person. Sometimes you may need to gather evidence that is not in your control or possession, but the other party has or can obtain them to provide as evidence in your case.
If the records can be obtained by you, you should request those records as soon as you know they will be important to your case. If they are in the possession or control of another party, you may need to make a discovery request or request a Subpoena Duces Tecum to obtain the records. Information for obtaining records from the other parties using these processes is available here:
Some examples of records that may be relevant are:
Financial records provide information to the court of income and expenditures of a party. Financial records are important to prove incomes for child support determination, spousal support, and attorney fees requests. Financial records also provide the court with the values of the parties’ financial accounts at the time of marriage or commencement of a committed intimate relationship and at the time of separation of the relationship for asset and debt division purposes. You may also want to provide records to show any excessive spending or cost of purchases of personal property to the court.
Three months or more of paychecks or paystubs from a person’s employer can prove the current income, tax and other deductions, and year-to-date earnings for a party. If the court needs to determine the income of a party, current proof of income is provided by these records, so provide the most up-to-date information you can. If income is variable for a party over a period of time (such as for seasonal workers, mandatory/voluntary overtime accrual, etc.), you should provide a longer period of records to prove any deviations or changes to income for a party over time. If a person has had various employment over the past few years, you can provide a variety of income records to show historical as well as current earning capabilities of a party.
Two or three years of federal and state tax returns (including all schedules, W-2s, etc.) are important to show the reported income of a party. This is considered one of the most reliable methods for determining the income of a party as they are created by a party or tax professional and reported to the government for tax liability determination. Additionally, lying on a federal tax return is a crime, so if the information provided is inaccurate, there could be criminal penalties for the person signing the tax return.
Personal and business bank accounts usually provide monthly or quarterly bank statements. These may be used to show the current financial status (income and expenses of a party). This will be important if there is any dispute about the income of a party, such as parties who are self-employed, own a business, or regularly receive cash payments like tips. Be sure all bank accounts in a party’s name are provided for the person in question. They may also be used to show any transfers or payments to child support, children’s expenses, or other proof of payments that may be in dispute. Be sure to include several months of recent bank statements if the court will be making an income determination, and this is the only proof of income available (direct deposits, cash deposits, etc.).
If any party has ownership in a business, the assets and income of the business may be relevant to the court. If the business is a marital business, a valuation may be needed to determine the value of the business as a marital asset. Business records such as profit and loss statements, quarterly reports, and income and expenses worksheets may help with assessing the income and expenses for the business and ultimately a value for the business. Determining the value of a business can be done in a variety of ways and can be complicated, so it is important to seek advice from a professional if you aren’t certain how much a party’s business may be worth before going to trial.
If there is a dispute about finances, including child support, spousal support, or a request that the other party pay attorney fees, the court will require a financial declaration to be completed to show the financial status of the parties. The declaration includes both incomes of the parties and a list of expenses of a party. This is important to complete accurately as the court will refer to it to determine the ability of the parties to pay debts and their expenses, and considerations of how much is appropriate for spousal support awards.
Valuation of Property
When going through a divorce or legal separation, the value of the personal and real property is important to determine so the court can fairly divide the property between the parties. At trial, the court will have to make a “fair and equitable” division, and having accurate information on the values of marital and separate property is essential for this purpose.
Real Property (homes and land)
If either party owns a home or land, it is important to get a value determined for the property. Valuations completed by a professional appraiser are the most common method of determining real estate values. If the house is being placed on the market, a comparative market analysis may also provide some guidance as to a value, but ultimately the actual sale price of the home is the best determination of value.
What valuation method is used is based on what will happen to the property in the case. The court will need to decide if the property is marital property or separate property of the parties, whether it should be awarded to either party, if there is equity in the property (the value of the property minus any loans/debts against the property), and what amount of the value or the property should be awarded to each party. The court may allow one party to keep the property if they can refinance and buy out the amount owed to the other party. Or the court can order the property to be sold and the sale proceeds split by the parties.
If either party owns a portion of any business, it may be a marital asset. A valuation may be needed to determine the value of the business for property division in a divorce or committed intimate relationship. A business valuation can be completed by hiring a professional and providing necessary information for determination. Determining the value of a business can be done in various ways and can be complicated, so it is important to seek advice from a professional if you aren’t certain how much a party’s business may be worth before going to trial.
Personal property includes all other property owned by the parties that is not real property. This includes cars, boats, motorcycles, bank accounts, retirement accounts, furniture, other household furnishings, clothing, tools, etc.
Online valuation tools like Kelley Blue Book, J.D. Power, Edmunds, and others provide a free website to estimate the value of a vehicle. The accuracy is dependent on the information provided so it is important to have the mileage, year, condition, and other information when using these tools.
Bank, Retirement, and Other Financial Accounts
Providing the statements for all financial accounts from the time of marriage or commencement of a committed intimate relationship and the time of separation will provide the best information as to what portion or amount of the earnings are marital property and subject to division by the court. Generally money or retirement funds and credits earned prior to the relationship commencement date and after the separation date will be considered the party’s separate property, but the earnings during the relationship will be community property and subject to division by the court. Funds acquired through inheritance, separate property owned prior to the relationship, and other situations may still cause the property to be considered separate property if it is kept separate or can be traced back to its source. There are specific rules and exceptions that apply in determining if property is separate or community property, so you should consult with an attorney if you have a special situation on concern.
Furniture, Household Furnishings, Clothing, Tools, etc.
Other personal property items, including all household items, tools, equipment, clothing, furniture, and any other items may need to be valued by the court. The court is looking for the fair market value of the items at the time of separation. Used items such as furniture, clothing, electronics, etc. generally lose value over time with use and age. The court will allow the parties to estimate the values or provide documentation of the cost to purchase if the items are fairly new purchases. Resources like Ebay, Craigslist, Facebook Marketplace, etc. may provide some idea of the value of similar items if you are uncertain about what a fair market value would be for an item in similar condition. If any of the items are collectibles, antiques, jewelry, or artwork, you may want a professional to provide a value for the items as they are likely more valuable than most other personal property in a case.
In cases where custody and visitation for minor children is in dispute, you may need to present evidence on what is in the children’s best interests. Some of the factors the court is looking for are listed below.
RCW 26.09.002 defines the child’s best interests.
- The best interests of the child are served by a parenting arrangement that best maintains a child’s emotional growth, health and stability, and physical care. Further, the best interest of the child is ordinarily served when the existing pattern of interaction between a parent and child is altered only to the extent necessitated by the changed relationship of the parents or as required to protect the child from physical, mental, or emotional harm.
When establishing what is in the best interests of the child, the court will often mention “191 factors.” RCW 26.09.191 provides a list of reasons a court may limit a parent’s time with the children.
RCW 26.09.191(2) provides a list of reasons the court must limit contact between a parent and child when there is abandonment, abuse (physical, sexual, or emotional), a history of acts of domestic violence, an assault or sexual assault causing grievous bodily harm, fear of such harm, or a pregnancy, or if the parent has been convicted of a sexual offense as an adult provided in the list.
RCW 26.09.191(3) provides a list of reasons the court may limit contact between a parent and child when there is neglect or substantial nonperformance of parenting functions, long-term emotional or physical impairment interfering with the parent’s performance of parenting functions, a long-term impairment resulting from substance abuse interfering with performance of parenting functions, an absence or substantial impairment of emotional ties between the parent and child, abusive use of conflict causing the danger of serious damage to the child’s psychological development, or withholding access of the children from the other parent for a protracted amount of time without good cause.
How does the court decide what is in the best interests of the child?
The court looks to create the most stability and support for the children, looking at the capabilities of each parent and the needs of the child. The court will want to know the history of caretaking responsibilities for the child by each parent and who provided and still provides for the child’s day-to-day care needs and support. If any of the safety concerns listed above are of concern, then you will need to prepare to testify and provide proof that the problem with the other parent exists and requires the court to limit the child’s time with that parent. Court records of convictions, drug test results, and other reports can assist you with proving a limiting condition exists for the court to order appropriate conditions to visitation and contact between a parent and child. Custody evaluations may be requested, and professionals like the children’s therapists or doctors may also provide evidence to support your case.
How can my child testify in court?
The court rarely allows testimony from children in custody disputes. If there are concerns of abuse of the children, substance abuse issues with a parent, or other safety concerns listed above, the court will usually refer a case to Family Court Services or appoint a Guardian Ad Litem (GAL) to investigate and report back to the court on information the court should know for consideration of a parenting plan. If this hasn’t been done before your trial date, you may want to file a motion to request one. Through these investigations and reports, the child’s opinions and requests will be reported to the court if they are of appropriate age to give such opinions. Otherwise, the child’s actions and conduct can be provided through the testimony of the parties or other witnesses with personal information.
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.