The Pennsylvania family court system is complicated, difficult to navigate effectively and governed by frequently-changing rules that even attorneys have a tough time keeping up with. There are actually three different court systems in most Pennsylvania counties to deal with family law disputes. Litigants must address divorce, support and child custody disputes in three distinct court processes, requiring three separate court actions. That means parties are frequently dealing with three separate court actions simultaneously. No wonder family law litigation is so expensive and time-consuming!
At least you get your day in court, right? Well, sort of. Sometimes. Each separate court “track” has multiple levels, only some of which involve a court or a judge. There are built-in processes designed to help parties reach agreements to avoid actual court hearings. In most counties, the actual divorce hearing is held by a divorce master, not a judge. The divorce master is an attorney who acts as a judge, hears the testimony, reviews the exhibits, reads the briefs filed by both attorneys and makes a recommendation about how to divide assets and whether alimony should be awarded. Before having a hearing, the divorce master will usually meet with the attorneys for a prehearing conference to discuss the dispute, plan how long a hearing might take and try to reach an agreement.
Then he or she will schedule a settlement conference with the parties and their attorneys, specifically for the purpose of trying to reach an agreement and avoid a court hearing. If there’s no agreement at that point, the divorce master will schedule a hearing. He or she will usually take one more shot at reaching an agreement before the actual hearing starts. The vast majority of cases reach an agreement without actually having a hearing, which is a good thing. If not, then we have a hearing with testimony and exhibits and direct examination and cross-examination and all those events from TV and books. But the surprise to most people is that they don’t get to testify about everything they want to say. They only get to testify about the things that the law specifies as relevant. When the hearing is done, the attorneys submit written briefs to the court explaining how they think the case should be decided and then everyone waits for a decision. If one or both sides are unhappy with the decision, there are multiple levels of possible appeals.
There are similar processes for custody and support actions, with steps along the way designed to help the parties reach agreements and avoid court. At the same time, the parties and their attorneys are preparing to go to court and jumping through all the hoops designed by the court rules, which means lots of time and money. I’m all for having individuals reach agreements and I firmly believe that most people can make better decisions for themselves and their families than any court could ever make. I’m glad the court system has these built-in mechanisms designed to help people reach agreements. I encourage my clients to reach reasonable agreements at any stage of the court process, because ultimately I cannot predict what a judge or divorce master will decide. I make my best predictions, but there are no guarantees when you put the decision in someone else’s hands.
What I’ve consistently heard from clients is their frustration at spending so much time and money navigating the court system, getting closer to the point of having a judge decide their case, only to finally reach an agreement before going to court. The frustration is not with the fact that they reached an agreement, but with the process they used to get there.