You’re getting a divorce. Your spouse is being a complete idiot. Your friends and family are encouraging you to “lawyer up.” Even though you’re terrified by the thought of actually having to go to court, you can’t help but smile when you imagine the judge smacking down your soon-to-be-ex in front of a courtroom full of people.
There’s only one small problem.
It’s not that your spouse isn’t doing stupid things. It’s not that you shouldn’t get a lawyer. But, the picture you have in your head about the judge recoiling in horror after s/he hears about the crazy things your spouse is doing, that part is probably a bit of a stretch. (Sorry!)
The Truth About Divorce and the Legal System
It’s no surprise that, in a society that has been raised on a diet of cinematic courtroom dramas and reality TV, we tend to think we know what happens in a real live courtroom.
But, unless you have actually spent a lot of time in court yourself (which means you are either a judge, a lawyer, or someone with a boatload of legal problems), I can almost guarantee you that what you think happens in court, and what really happens in court are entirely different.
Here are 7 things you may believe about divorce and the legal system that are not necessarily true:
- You will get to tell the judge your story. Judges are busy. Their calendars are regularly over-booked. Unless your case is set for trial or a contested hearing, you don’t get hours to present your side of the story to the judge. You get minutes.Courtrooms are also run by a series of very specific rules. Those rules regulate what you can say, and what you can’t say. They determine what evidence can be used in court, and what evidence stays out. When you put all that together, the net result is that you will never be able to stand in court and tell the judge your story, your way, with all the details that you think matter. Ever.
- The judge will rule in your favor. While it may be obvious to you that you are right and your spouse is wrong, the judge may have a very different view of the matter.Some of the things you want to tell the judge may be hearsay. Some of the facts that you think are critical may be legally irrelevant. The judge may interpret and apply the law very differently than the way that you think is right. The bottom line is that, unless you have a crystal ball, or a superpower that lets you see the future, you never know how a judge will rule.
- The court system is fast. Most people think that, when their spouse does something that s/he is not supposed to do, all they have to do is call their lawyer. Their lawyer will then drop everything and file a motion. The judge will immediately hold a hearing on that motion and decide the issue. Bam! Problem solved.Except that’s almost never what happens. Lawyers can’t always crank out paperwork on a moment’s notice. Judges almost never hold a hearing the first time any motion is up. The opposing side almost always gets time to respond. Continuances are common. Hearings are rare. Contrary to what most people think, the legal process is slow – sometimes painfully slow. If you believe anything else, you’re deluding yourself.
- The court system is fair. Everyone goes to court believing that the judge will do what is “fair” and that they will get something called “justice.” The problem with expecting the court system to be fair is that everyone has their own definition of what being “fair” means. Many times “fairness” or “justice,” like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.You think the judge will be fair. So does your spouse. Yet, you are on opposite sides of the same case. No matter what the judge decides one of you is going to think the judge was unfair.
- The judge can make your spouse stop doing stupid things. Judges have a lot of power. If you don’t follow their orders, they can slap you with fines. They can hold you in contempt of court. Given the right circumstances, they can even throw you in jail.But, no judge lives with you 24/7. No judge can stop you, or your spouse, from making bad decisions, or behaving like a two-year-old. Judges can do a lot of things. But, they’re not God.
When your spouse does something you don’t agree with, you can take him/her to court immediately. Not everything that you think is important is legally significant. You may be terribly disturbed by the fact that your spouse isn’t making sure your kids do their homework. The judge may even agree with you that neglecting homework is bad parenting. But, not all bad parenting is a legal problem. And not all problems will warrant an immediate resolution.You may think that your spouse’s threat to deny you any time with your child on his/her birthday tomorrow is an emergency. But the judge may not consider a missed birthday to be something that deserves an emergency court hearing on short notice.
- If you go to court, you will win! First of all, there are no guarantees in life. No matter how great of a case you think you have, that still doesn’t mean that the judge will see your case the same way that you do. (See number 2.) You can never be sure in advance that you will win.What’s more, even if you “win,” you can lose. If you “win” your case, but it cost you everything you have to get your victory, what did you really win? If you “win” in court but your children are massively screwed up as a result, was winning worth it? Before you get all hopped up about “winning” your divorce case, you would be wise to decide in advance what “winning” means to you.
Going to Court is Like a Box of Chocolates
When you’re hurt, upset, and don’t know where to turn in your divorce, it seems natural to expect that you can lean on the court system for support. The problem is that the court system wasn’t designed to support anyone. It was designed to resolve disputes. Period.
Just like Forrest Gump so famously said, “Going to court is like a box of chocolates. You never know before you go, what you’re going to get.” (Ok, so maybe those weren’t Forrest Gump’s exact words! But they’re close!)
Karen Covy is a divorce attorney, advisor, mediator, and coach. She is the author of When Happily Ever After Ends: How to Survive Your Divorce Emotionally, Financially and Legally. To read more divorce advice from Karen, you can check out her website at https://karencovy.com.
Wonder what else you don’t know about divorce? Check out: The 10 Biggest Divorce Myths.