What to Expect at a Settlement Conference

The court process can be stressful at times.  This stress can be reduced if you have a good idea of what to expect during each step along the way.  A key part of any litigated family law case is a settlement conference.  Settlement conferences may also be referred to as ‘Case Management Conferences’ in St. Charles County or ‘Pre-Trial Conferences’ or ‘Status Conferences’ in St. Louis City.

A settlement conference is a meeting between the Judge and the attorneys.   Settlement conferences are required per local court rule and if one is not conducted, the case may be dismissed.  This meeting generally takes place in the Judge’s chambers, in private, and without the parties.  In some rare cases the judge will conduct a settlement conference in the courtroom.

During this meeting, the parties will sit separately, either in the courtroom or in the hallway outside of the courtroom.  Parties are generally not required to talk to each other unless they wish to.  Except in rare cases, neither party will meet the Judge at this conference.

At a settlement conference, the attorneys update the Judge on the status of settlement discussions and ask for feedback on outstanding issues.  Most judges will give some feedback with the intention of helping the parties work towards settlement. A settlement conference, by its nature, is an informal meeting designed to help move the parties toward a resolution.

A settlement conference is different from a trial or a hearing in that the Judge will not be making any decisions or entering any orders regarding a case at that time unless the parties can agree. When a party wishes for the judge to make a decision on an outstanding issue, a formal written request must generally be made and a hearing must be set on a different docket than that of the settlement conference, per local rules of the court.

Generally, unless an emergency situation arises, these formal requests would not be placed on a docket for a hearing until a settlement conference has occurred. The next steps following the conference will depend on the outcome of the discussions at the settlement conference.  These steps may include additional formal discovery (i.e. information gathering) and continued settlement negotiations.

The court, in an effort to continue to move cases forward, will most likely set a case for an additional settlement conference to review the status of the matter.  The court may also set a trial date, generally several months away (depending on the case) to allow time for settlement possibilities.  If a settlement is reached before the trial date, the judgment will be entered at a brief hearing and, generally, no trial will be necessary.

Be aware this is a general outline and every situation is unique.  If you have questions about your individual situation, please contact an attorney.  This post should not be considered legal advice.

Communication During Litigation: Keeping Your Cool

Let’s face it – litigation can be stressful and heated.  Communication that was once routine may now prove difficult.  Yelling at your spouse when the kids come back a few minutes late (or minus some clothes you sent in the diaper bag), may offer temporary satisfaction, but before you do that, you may want to consider a few things…

First, while your intimate relationship is ending, your relationship as parents will continue for years to come.  In addition to the big events – graduations, ball games and recitals, the day-to-day parenting duties will remain.  You and your soon-to-be ex will need to work together to be sure teeth get brushed and homework gets finished in both homes.  It’s better for your kids to see a positive relationship even under negative circumstances.

Second, you should also be aware your communications could become part of the court process.  The judge may review communications (or lack thereof) and take that into account in deciding parenting time and decision making authority.

Finally, we all know that litigation can be expensive.  Heightened conflict requires more attorney involvement.

Communication during litigation should be brief, businesslike and deliberate – do not be reactive.  When you are angry, you may want to consider waiting a day to respond.  You may even want to contact your attorney.  Never assume your communications are private.  And remember, civil communication goes a long way towards keeping costs down.

Be aware every situation is unique.  This post should not be considered legal advice.  If you have questions about your individual situation, please contact an attorney.

Same-Sex Marriage & Divorce Update

Updated:  Same-sex couples may now marry and divorce in Missouri.

This is what we know about Missouri same-sex marriages as of October 6, 2014:

  • Judge Youngs in Kansas City ruled on October 3, 2014 that Sections 451.022 and 104.012 of the Missouri Statutes and Article 1, Section 33 of the Missouri Constitution violate the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution.  In summary, this means that assuming this judgment is not overturned on appeal, the State of Missouri must now recognize same-sex marriages lawfully performed outside of Missouri.

What does this mean for same-sex couples wanting a divorce in Missouri?

  • Although Judge Youngs’ ruling in Barrier v. Vasterling applies to the defendants (state and city officials in Missouri) and requires these defendants to recognize same-sex marriages lawfully performed outside of Missouri, it is unclear whether same-sex couples will now be allowed to divorce in Missouri.
  • One possible outcome is that, until a higher level court rules on this issue, circuit court judges may decide whether to allow same-sex divorces to move forward in their divisions.  It is also possible judges may await further clarification from the Missouri Supreme Court.

Here’s what we will be watching:

  • Will Attorney General Koster appeal the ruling in Barrier?  If he does not appeal the Barrier decision, Judge Youngs’ ruling will remain in place and Missouri will recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.  LATE UPDATE: Attorney General Koster has decided not to appeal Judge Youngs’ ruling in Barrier v. Vasterling.  See the full statement here.
  • A case relating to same-sex divorce is currently pending at the Missouri Supreme Court.  This case should provide a direct answer as to whether same-sex couples may divorce in Missouri.  We expect a decision soon.
  • As a result of the Barrier decision, we expect same-sex divorce petitions to be filed throughout Missouri.  We will be watching to see how individual circuit judges proceed on this issue.

In the meantime, there are steps you can take to prepare for a possible divorce proceeding as we await clarity on this issue.  If you have additional questions, please contact us.

Length of a Divorce? It Depends

The answer to this question is a typical lawyer answer – it depends and may be impossible to say for sure. Consider these factors that may impact the length of the divorce process:

  • Conflict:  If an agreement has already been reached, it may be as simple as hiring an attorney to draft and submit the formal agreement with the court. If you and your spouse are unable to agree on basic terms, it may be necessary to involve attorneys and the court to help sort things out.
  • Complexity:  If your situation involves minimal property (think: a checking account, 2 cars and a dog), formal information gathering may be limited.  If your situation involves extensive property (think: investments, retirement, a business, real estate), more time and outside professionals may be needed to fully understand all assets and income.
  • Court Schedule:  In many ways we are at the mercy of the court.  You and your attorney can control some parts of the process, but it is important to keep in mind the court controls its calendar.  Judges have limited time to handle the thousands of cases on file.

There are a few things you can do to help keep things moving.  Consider the following:

  • Conflict: Minimize it.
  • Complexity:  Some of this may be out of your control, but do your best to gather all the requested documents and stay organized.
  • Court Schedule:  Although the court schedule is out of your control, do your best to respond to your attorney as quickly as possible.

Be aware every situation is unique.  If you have questions about your individual situation, please contact an attorney.  This post should not be considered legal advice.

First Steps in the Divorce Process

#1 – Ask Questions:  At this early stage, a short phone meeting with an attorney can be helpful as it will allow the attorney to gather information about your situation and provide you with answers to your general questions.  If we are able to assist you, we may ask you to sit down with us for an in-person meeting.  If we are unable to assist you, we may refer you to an attorney who can.

#2 – Initial Consultation:  During this meeting, we will review your situation in more detail, answer your questions and provide you with a clear road map of the process and the options available to help you reach a resolution (e.g. mediation, litigation or collaboration).  During our first in-person meeting, you will only need to bring your questions.

#3 – Moving Forward:  At this point you should have a good understanding of your legal rights and options.  You should also feel comfortable with us as we will, if we are retained, be representing your interests and working closely with you throughout the process.  You will then be able to decide how and when you wish to proceed.   

Be aware every situation is unique.  If you have questions about your individual situation, please contact an attorney.  This post should not be considered legal advice.

3 Quick Tips to Consider When Choosing an Attorney

The decision to hire an attorney is often made during a stressful time.  You may want to consider these 3 quick tips when meeting potential attorneys:

#1 Focus of practice:  Focusing on one area of the law allows for a deeper understanding in that particular area.  Consider this – if you needed heart surgery, would you ask for your family doctor or insist on a cardiologist?

#2 Asking about your goals:  Although an exact outcome can rarely be guaranteed, a successful attorney will ask about your goals, provide feedback on a realistic outcome and will work within the existing court system to achieve them to the extent possible.

#3 Trust your instincts:  You and your attorney will be working closely for the duration of your case.  Your attorney will need to know some of the most intimate details of your private life in order to best represent you.  When you leave the first meeting with a potential attorney, you should feel comfortable sharing these details. 

Be aware every situation is unique.  If you have questions about your individual situation, please contact an attorney.  This post should not be considered legal advice.