Divorces in Pennsylvania can be done two ways. For a “no-fault” divorce, the parties can apply to a court together and, if both sides agree, a judge can grant a divorce without holding a hearing. If the parties disagree on issues, such as the division of assets, child custody issues, or one party’s “fault” in the divorce, the issues might go to trial. Trials dealing with family law often have a few quirks that make them different from what you see in court TV shows or crime dramas.
The Philadelphia divorce attorneys at The Law Offices of Sadek and Cooper have over a decade of experience handling all kids of family law cases and divorce trials. If you are considering divorce, it is important to understand what types of divorce are available, how long divorce proceedings may take, and what will happen if the case goes to trial. Talk to one of our attorneys today for a free consultation on your divorce case.
Can Divorces go to Trial?
A “trial” is usually thought of as a day in court to resolve a legal issue. In criminal cases, bankruptcy cases, or civil cases, the “trial” may be one, self-contained process that occurs over the course of a day (or a few days), and has months of preparation. In family law, there are often multiple hearings and appearances before a judge, but not all of them are “trials.” However, PA law does allow a trial to resolve any issues the parties disagree on.
The point of a trial is to resolve an issue of fact. If one party claims something to be true, but the other party denies it, the issue may be decided at trial. In a traditional jury trial, the judge sits as a referee for each side and decides any issues regarding the law. The jury ultimately decides what the facts are. Each side presents evidence, records, and testimony arguing that their facts are true, while the other side may examine and argue against their evidence.
If the parties decide, a judge or a master can hear the trial instead of a jury. In a “bench trial,” the judge acts as the legal referee and the tryer of fact. A master is a lawyer whose experience in the law makes them a trustworthy person to decide the issues of fact and law in place of a judge. Judges in many counties in Pennsylvania appoint masters to handle family law issues. Any hearing or trial can be held before a master instead of a judge, but the master’s decision may not be final. If the parties are unhappy with the master’s decision, they may appeal the case for a new trial before the judge. In many cases, the master’s decision is the same decision a judge would make, and the parties do not appeal the decision to a judge.
Aside from trials, other “hearings” occur in nearly every divorce proceeding. Any time that parties and their lawyers appear before a judge, the appearance may be scheduled as a “hearing.” In these, the parties may make requests or place motions before the judge. The judge decides these issues and legal arguments presented, but these hearings are based on facts the parties agree upon. If there is a disagreement of fact, the issue may need to go to trial before other issues can be resolved.
Because so many issues can be resolved through an intermediary like a judge or a master, full-fledged jury trials are rare in divorce.
Divorce Trial Process
Trials in a divorce may be used to decide many issues, including the following:
- Whether one party disserted, cheated on, abused, or otherwise tarnished the marriage (i.e. in order to prove the grounds of a fault-based divorce;
- What assets each party owns, to decide what can be divided at divorce;
- The value of assets; and
- Child abuse or neglect.
In a trial, each party is given the opportunity to present evidence and testimony to prove their side of the case. There are strict rules of evidence and procedure that must be followed. The “plaintiff,” the side claiming the fact, gets to go first, presenting its evidence. The “defendant,” arguing against the fact, gets to “cross-examine” any witnesses, challenging the facts presented. Then, the sides switch; the defense gets to present new evidence and the plaintiff cross-examines. At the end, the tryer of fact (the judge, jury, or master) makes a decision about the facts.
The vast majority of cases are not handled through trial, but rather through a hearing with a master. These hearings usually involve both sides and their attorneys sitting down to a conference with the master. At the end, the master will make a recommendation. If the parties are happy with the compromise the master has decided, the case will end. If the parties are unhappy, they may demand a new hearing to prove their case in a more formal trial setting.
Philadelphia Divorce Lawyers
The Philadelphia family lawyers at The Law Offices of Sadek and Cooper may be able to represent you at your divorce proceedings. If you are seeking a divorce, you may need a lawyer to help contest unfair claims, protect your property, and ensure that your voice is heard during divorce hearings and trials. For a free consultation with one of our attorneys, call 215-625-0851 today.