Overview of a Florida Divorce Case

Although a divorce case in Florida could theoretically be finalized within a month, a contested case usually lasts from six months to over a year. Almost all divorce-related cases are heard by a judge, not a jury. Divorce judges do not want excessive emotion brought into their courtrooms. A seasoned divorce attorney will coach his/her client to be calm in the artificial environment known as a courtroom. Judicial impressions are significant. The manner which a client presents himself/herself in court while testifying and while not testifying can be very important. Many cases are heard in a judge's chambers (offices), except for trials and hearings involving many witnesses.

Filing a Petition for Divorce in Florida

A divorce case is begun by filing a "Petition for Dissolution of Marriage" with the Clerk of the Circuit Court. If a case is filed in Pinellas County, Florida the case can be filed either at the St. Petersburg Courthouse or the Clearwater Courthouse depending upon the proximity of the filing attorney's office. The person served with the "Petition for Dissolution of Marriage" must file an Answer within 20 days. The Answer can include a "Counterpetition for Dissolution of Marriage" (which is a "divorce petition within a divorce petition").

Discovery During a Divorce

During the case, each divorce attorney obtains "discovery" (i.e., information and documents, often financially related) from the other attorney. There are five types of discovery:

  1. Mandatory disclosure
  2. Depositions
  3. Interrogatories
  4. Request to produce documents
  5. Request for admissions

The Respondent has 45 days to respond to any discovery request served upon him/her. Thereafter, both parties must respond to the discovery requests with 30 days. The following is a summary of the discovery types: Mandatory Disclosure - This is a relatively new form of discovery in Florida divorce cases. Both parties are required to exchange 16 categories of documents within 45 days after a divorce lawsuit is served upon the Respondent. This "mandatory disclosure" can be waived by the parties, but should not be waived in cases involving significant assets and/or liabilities.

Financial Affidavit Must be Filed

However, the filing of a "Financial Affidavit" (which is part of mandatory disclosure) cannot be waived. A Financial Affidavit is the most important financial document filed by each party in a divorce case. It contains detailed information about one's income, monthly expenses, assets, and liabilities. Florida law permits a final judgment of divorce to be reopened at any time if a spouse filed a significantly inaccurate Financial Affidavit.

Depositions and Interrogatories

A "deposition" is an out-of-court questioning of a party or witness to obtain information, preserve testimony (e.g., elderly person or a person who may move out-of-state), and/or obtain a statement which may be used to impeach the deponent if he/she testified differently at trial. Depositions are usually held in the court reporter's office. They can last from a few minutes to a day or more. Both attorneys, the parties, the deponent, and a court reporter are present.

"Interrogatories" are simply written questions. Often attorneys will serve the Standard Family Law Interrogatories on the opposing attorney without adding their own questions specific to a case even though Florida law permits adding ten additional questions to the form set of questions. Interrogatories must be answered within 30 days, unless they are served with the initial divorce petition (in which case they can be answered within 45 days). "Request to Produce Documents" is a written demand that the opposing party produces a copy of listed documents with 30 days. The receiving the request has a right to object to the production of all or a portion of the documents. A "Request for Admissions" is simply a tool by which the other party is required to admit or deny a list of facts.

Fighting Divorce Delay Tactics

If divorce attorneys attempt to delay a divorce case, there exists a little used, but very effective, tool called a "Case Management Conference." A CMC is a short hearing and is often used if an opposing attorney is delaying a case. The parties of a divorce case can settle their case without mediation through a "Marital Settlement Agreement"). However, it is more typical that cases are settled through mediation (by a "Mediated Agreement". A mediator has no power and the sole function of a mediator is to facilitate settlement if possible. Proceedings are confidential. The benefits of settlement, with or without mediation, is saving substantial attorney fees and costs, eliminating the time and emotion of trial, and having a certain result of a settlement agreement, and not relying on the judge to make all decisions for both parties.

Divorce Trial is Generally the Last Resort

If mediation is unsuccessful, then trial is the next step. Many divorce cases are settled after mediation, but before the conclusion of trial. The problem with a late settlement is the cost of attorney fees and litigation costs (e.g., forensic C.P.A.). The judge will schedule a Pretrial Conference. Each attorney is required to file a Pretrial Conference Statement which lists the lay witnesses, expert witnesses, documents anticipated to be introduced at trial, the stipulations (attorney agreements) to reduce unnecessary issues at trial, the estimated length of trial, etc. The judge will schedule the trial date at the Pretrial Conference.

Costs of Divorce in Florida Depends on Method of Settlement

Typically, attorney fees for trial, including the preparation and attendance at trial and time spent on post-trial matters (e.g., preparation of the proposed Final Judgment of Dissolution of Marriage) will be three to four times the attorney fees previously incurred. Divorce cases generally last from a half day to several days. As previously stated, divorce cases should usually be settled, not tried, assuming reasonable settlement terms.  At all stages of litigation, a good divorce lawyer should keep her/his client informed of the facts and law, and should have the client assist with case goals and strategy (including probability of outcome and cost benefit analysis).

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