Informal Custody Trials: What Are They and how Do They Work?

Let’s be honest: no one likes divorce trials. Parents don’t like trials. Kids don’t like trials. Experts don’t like trials. Attorneys don’t like trials. Heck, even judges don’t like trials. No one likes trials.

And the divorce trial process can be long. For example, I am currently working on one divorce case that just went to trial after six years. Another is scheduled for trial after nine years of litigation. (These cases are not normal at all. I mention them only to make a point about how long the trial process can take.)

Utah has tried to address this issue in some creative ways. One of the newer ways is called an “informal trial for support, custody, and parent-time.”

We tend to shorten that name and call them informal custody trials.

How Is an Informal Custody Trial Different from a Regular Trial?

Informal custody trials are radically different from the traditional trials you see on Law & Order.

In regular trials, attorneys guide the process. They ask questions of witnesses. They present evidence. They make opening statements and closing arguments. They make objections.

Informal custody trials are all about the parents. The parents drive the bus. Here’s what I mean.

The petitioner (the parent who filed for divorce) gets up and talks directly to the judge (1) what he or she wants, and (2) the reasoning behind those requests. The parent explains everything and provides all the evidence while they’re talking. The judge can ask questions of that parent about pretty much anything.

Once the first parent is done talking, the other parent gets up and does the same thing.

At that point, the judge may ask each parent some additional questions or give the parents a chance to speak again to address what the other parent said.

When the judge feels the parents have said everything they need to say, the judge will give a decision right then and there.

Here are some other differences between a normal trial and an informal custody trial:

  • There are no objections
  • There is no cross examination of witnesses
  • The rules of evidence don’t apply, which means you can talk about evidence you would never otherwise be able get in during a normal trial
  • Testimony is limited to the parents and experts (there are almost never experts), so really it’s limited to the parents

Is an Informal Custody Trial a Good Idea?

I think informal custody trials can be a good idea for some people.

Here are the types of people I think might do well:

  1. People who are very organized and have a lot of experience speaking in public.

Remember, you have to put on an entire case about custody and parent-time, and you have to do it in front of a judge in a public courtroom. That’s nerve-wracking (to say the least) for most people and it takes practice to get used to.

  1. People who can answer questions under pressure well.

The judge will ask you question during one of these trials. If you don’t answer questions well under pressure, you’re probably sunk.

  1. People with some knowledge of the court system.

It’s always easier to do something if you’re familiar with it. If you know how the court system works, you’ll most likely be more comfortable during your trial presentation, which will help you be more fluid and persuasive.

My Suggestions for Anyone Thinking about Doing an Informal Custody Trial

Look, custody trials are incredibly important and you shouldn’t take them lightly.

If you have any reservations about organization or your ability to speak persuasively to a judge, please, find an attorney to help you with your case.

In fact, I think getting some coaching on how to organize and present your case is a very good idea. What you can do is find an attorney who will sit down with you for a few hours (you’ll need that much time to do things right), go over your evidence, go over your presentation, and coach you through things. This will help you immensely.

If you feel you need help during the trial itself, get an attorney to be by your side. He or she can help guide you during the trial regarding what you will say and how you can counter what your spouse says.

And finally, practice what you will tell the judge. Practice a ton. Then, practice some more. Practice until you’re bored out of your mind with what you’re saying because you’ve heard yourself say it so many times. At this point, you’re ready to talk to the judge.

Published On: August 19th, 2016Categories: Contested DivorceComments Off on Informal Custody Trials: What Are They and how Do They Work?
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About the Author: Marco Brown
Marco C. Brown was named Utah’s Outstanding Family Law Lawyer of the Year in 2015. He graduated with distinction from the University of Nebraska College of Law in 2007 and is currently the managing partner of Brown Family Law, LLC.
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