Do I Have to Have a Trial to Get Divorced in California?

Family law attorneys hear all kinds of things from their clients over the years, such that few things really shock them, but one thing they rarely hear from their clients (although it occasionally does happen) is, “I really want to have a courtroom trial against my spouse to get this divorce finalized.” And in the rare case clients do say this, it is usually based on an idealized, unrealistic view of the California family court system, namely a belief that the judge will lecture their spouse on all their failures and shortcomings over the years (Spoiler alert: that is not going to happen).

So, if you’re hoping to not have to go to a trial to get divorced in California, you’re with the vast majority of people in wanting to avoid the expense, drama, uncertainty, stress, and all-around hassle of courtroom trials, to say nothing of the early start times and subpar courtroom food options. And around 90% of divorces in California do in fact settle without a trial.

To be clear, however, once a divorce proceeding has started, there are really only four ways it can end: (1) a trial; (2) one of the spouses passes away during the proceedings; (3) the filing spouse decides to stay married and withdraws the petition (although the other spouse can always file their own); or (4) the spouses reach a settlement agreement.

Assuming (2) or (3) don’t happen, that leaves only two options: either you and your spouse settle or you go to trial.

Why Some Cases Settle and Some Go To Trial

Answering the question of why some cases settle and others go to trial has both a long answer and a short answer. The short answer is that some cases settle because the parties involved are willing to do what is necessary to resolve all of their issues (including property distribution, spousal support, child support, and custody/visitation) through a written agreement that they can both live with.

The longer answer is that there are any number of reasons why a case cannot settle prior to trial, but in most situations those reasons relate to less-than-ideal attitudes and approaches by one of the following four persons: (1) the filing spouse; (2) the responding spouse; (3) the filing spouse’s attorney(s); or (4) the responding spouse’s attorney(s). Some of the more common reasons settlement cannot be reached include:

  • Ignorance of what one spouse is entitled to under the law
  • Ignorance of what one spouse is obligated to do under the law
  • Unrealistic expectations on how a judge will rule at trial
  • One lawyer’s motivation to run up the bill by litigating the case through trial
  • One lawyer’s desire to “win” at trial at all costs, namely the costs to the client
  • A desire to inflict revenge on another spouse by forcing them to trial
  • A refusal by a spouse or attorney to play fair in the proceedings leading up to trial, e.g. failing to provide the other side with documents or other information to which they are entitled
  • Genuine disagreement on how a judge will rule on an important issue at trial, and enough money at stake to make going to trial “worth it” for at least one party

Steps You Can Take to Help Avoid Trial

All of that said, when both parties are open and honest with one another, and are committed to resolving issues in a way that is fair to both sides without spending their children’s college funds on legal fees for a messy trial – and just as importantly, when those parties are represented by attorneys who share those same goals – settlement is a very likely outcome.

With that general approach in mind, the following are some basic but critically important steps both parties can take to help avoid the possibility of an expensive, bruising trial:

  • Take the time to find an attorney who is not only committed to serving your interests but also has a reputation for working well with other attorneys to achieve settlement
  • Consider mediation, which is a process by which you and your spouse work with a neutral third party to sort out the issues in your divorce in a collaborative, non-confrontational manner (you may be represented by an attorney in mediation, or you and your spouse may do mediation without attorneys)
  • Do your best to understand the law as it applies to your situation (and as explained to you by your attorney), so that you are not motivated to go to trial based on faulty expectations of what you will be able to achieve there.
  • Understand what marital issues can and cannot be resolved in your divorce, and do not try to argue with your spouse over those issues that really have nothing to do with legally resolving matters. For example, you may feel intense emotional betrayal from your marriage, but endlessly arguing with him or her over those emotional and relational issues will probably not help you both work towards settlement.
  • Consider the long-term effects a drawn-out divorce involving a trial (which may take years) will have on you, your future self, and your family, and decide whether it is really worth it in comparison to what you might obtain at trial.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask your attorney periodically for a straightforward assessment for how much a trial will cost, what the result will be there, and how that will compare with settling now. If he cannot provide this, consider looking at other attorneys.

Guidance on Your California Spousal Support Questions From a Westlake Village Family Law Attorney

If you would like to learn more about how our office can provide guidance on your spousal support issues or any other California family law issues you are facing in Ventura County or Los Angeles County, contact the Zonder Family Law Group office today at (805) 777-7740 or (818) 877-0001, or schedule your strategy session using easy-to-use online form here.