Think back to anything in your life that you were ever apprehensive about. I’m willing to bet you that the reason you were apprehensive is that you didn't know what to expect. It could be anything from giving a presentation to your high school English class or giving a best man's speech for the first time at a wedding. Either way, if you have never done it before it is probable that you are a little nervous in the weeks and days leading up to the big event.
Those events pale in comparison to a family law case. Anyone who has ever been through a contested divorce or child custody case can tell you that it is not easy to handle the stress associated with these experiences. Not only is it personally nerve-wracking for you, but it is nerve-wracking when you consider that your children, your property and your sense of self is on the line in many ways. Make no mistake- you need to be prepared as you head into your family law case.
Over the course of the next few days, the attorneys with the Law Office of Bryan Fagan would like to spend some time talking with you about what you can expect in your own family law cases experience. No two cases are the same, and you cannot expect to learn everything you need to know from reading this guide or from talking to a neighbor who got divorced five years ago. However, more information is better than less information- especially when the source of that information has been through divorces and child custody cases of all kinds across southeast Texas.
Act professional, Be professional
If you find yourself in need of going to court for any reason associated with your family law case you should be aware that a courthouse and your courtroom are not your houses or your lawyer's office. As such, you should expect to see people behaving a bit differently. You should follow suit. That doesn't mean that you should live in fear of going to the courthouse, but it does mean that you should be aware of what sort of behavior is expected of you.
For starters, do not go out and buy new clothes for your court-date (unless you own no clothing like the ones I am about to describe). However, the clothes that you wear to court should be clean, unwrinkled and presentable. You do not need to look like a million dollars to go to court. However, you get one first impression to make with the judge and you ought to try and make it a good one.
Men should wear pants (slacks or dress pants, if possible) and a shirt with a collar on it. Don’t go out and buy one if you don’t already own one, but wearing a sport coat and tie really looks sharp. Women should wear dresses, blouses, pants, and jackets as well. I will say that sometimes women tend to forget that they are going to court and not out on a Friday night. Leave your super high heeled shoes, low cut blouses and flashy jewelry at home.
Your goal should be to look like you are taking your court appearance, and your case, very seriously. You can do that by dressing the part. Drawing unnecessary attention to yourself may not count against you in the eyes of a judge, but it certainly will not score you any credibility points with him or her. Take care to watch what you wear and how you act. Speaking of how you act, let’s address that topic now.
When you are in court your behavior will likely need to change somewhat from how you conduct yourself in your daily life. No, I’m not saying that you act inappropriately. I don’t know you, for one. For two, I think most people act similarly when are at the grocery store, a restaurant or walking down the street. Phones out, gum in our mouths and sort of oblivious to one another. If this is starting to hit home I don’t blame you. I do the same thing a lot of the time.
My point is that when you are in the courthouse, that sort of behavior needs to change. You need to be aware that you are being watched as soon as you step foot in your courthouse. In some large counties like Harris, you will feel like one of a couple of thousand people because that is exactly what you are. In smaller counties like Liberty or Chambers you will feel like one of a couple of people because, depending on the day and time of your hearing, you may be just one of a few people in the building. Either way, your opposing party, their attorney, their family, and even courtroom personnel can observe how you act as soon as you walk inside.
You should be careful to speak quietly and act conservatively when in the courthouse and your specific courtroom. Keep your phone in your pocket. Many courts have rules that you cannot use your phone for any reason. If the bailiff (a police officer in the courtroom) observes you on your phone they may take and keep it until the day is over with at 5:00 p.m. Bailiffs tend to make announcements about being on the phone every so often so keep your ears open so you don't miss an important announcement.
Answering questions in your hearing
All of the advice that I just gave to you pales in comparison to the importance of the information below. The reason you are in court is to provide a judge with testimony about your case. You are not there to ask questions (although you may really want to) or to do anything else. The attorneys and the judge can ask you questions in your hearing and you should be prepared to give answers to those questions.
You should speak directly to the person asking you the question. If you do not have a loud speaking voice that is ok. You don’t need to yell to be heard. Speak clearly and with enough volume so that the court reporter and judge can hear you. All of your responses need to be given verbally. Answers with shaking of your head or “grunting” yes or no will not work.
One of the biggest things I see on a consistent basis as far as answering questions from a judge or attorney is concerned is that many people do not wait until the questioner is done asking their question before responding. A lot of time you can tell where a questioner is going with their question and you are ready to give a response before the question has been asked and completed. This is tolerable in normal conversation but in the courtroom, it jumbles up your testimony and makes the court reporter's job even more difficult. My advice: make absolutely sure that the questioner is done asking you your question. When the question has been asked, take a moment to collect your thoughts and make sure that you understand the question before giving an honest answer.
Respect will get you a long way in the courtroom
Always show respect to the people around you while in court. Even if you are really upset with your spouse, you should treat him or her well when you are answering questions. Mrs. or Mr. for title-purposes is a nice touch. It goes without saying that when anyone is asking you a question, especially the judge, that you should never interrupt him or her. They could be saying something to you that you absolutely know if false. However, do not interrupt that person. Instead, make note of it and address the issue with your attorney when you are off of the witness stand.
The reason I emphasize your behavior while on the witness stand to such a great extent is that you are being judged not only on what you say but how you act. How credible (honest) you seem while giving answers means the more weight the judge can give to your testimony. If the judge thinks you are being less than honest in what you are saying it is possible that he or she will disregard much of what you have to say. Do not put yourself in a position where the judge doesn't believe that you are being truthful.
Children- leave them at home
I know that the focus of your family law case is likely to be your children- as it ought to be. However, courtrooms typically are not a place for kids and judges bar children from their courtrooms in most situations. Other than a final adoption hearing, I cannot recall a single instance where I saw that children were allowed in a courtroom. Do not bring the child into court and then expect someone there to be able to watch your child. Arrange for a sitter ahead of time and avoid any issues on the day of your hearing or trial.
How should you expect your marital estate to be handled in a family law case?
Other than your children, your property is likely to be the most important part of any divorce case that you are involved in. It is assumed that any property owned by you and your spouse at the time of your divorce is community owned. This means that the property is assumed to be owned jointly by you and your spouse, no matter if it was purchased during the course of your marriage or not. Debt is treated the same way. Debts and property are both divided in a Texas divorce.
In order to prove that property is not community-owned, but rather is separately owned, you must present evidence to the judge. Many of the items of property that you and your spouse own will have already been sorted out prior to your divorce so they will not be an issue. However, if you all are disputing the ownership of certain pieces of property that is what you need to focus on for your trial. Be prepared to be able to show who owns the property and when you gained title (or ownership) of the property. If you are not able to do this simply, an expert witness, usually a forensic accountant, will need to be hired in order to help you present this evidence to the judge.
What is separate property?
Broadly speaking, separate property is any property acquired prior to the beginning of your marriage or any property acquired by marriage through gift or inheritance. All other property is community property. At the outset of your marriage, you and your spouse could have agreed to an agreement in a marital property that designates the property as either being community or separately owned.
Reimbursement claims- tomorrow’s blog post topic
When you and your spouse contribute community property towards the betterment of one of your pieces of separate property, the community estate may be entitled to a reimbursement claim in your divorce. You see this frequently if community income was used to make improvements upon or the mortgage for a home that is the separate property of you or your spouse. We will discuss this further tomorrow.
In the meantime, if you have any questions regarding the information that we wrote about today please do not hesitate to contact the Law Office of Bryan Fagan. We offer free of charge consultations six days a week here in our office where our licensed family law attorneys can answer your questions and address your issues.
We take a great deal of pride in being able to serve the community that we live and work in. Our clients have experienced success in courtrooms across southeast Texas because of our diligent and effective representation. If you are interested in learning more about your case and anything else having to do with family law in Texas please give us a call today.