The Processes of Family Law
In its simplest form, there are two routes a family law case may take involving children and/or assets. If the parties are able to reach agreement on all fronts, the process of divorce involves the filing of a Complaint, recognizing the parties' Agreement, and shortly thereafter a final decree is entered by the court after a short, 10-minute hearing or deposition.
If the parties cannot reach agreement, a Complaint is filed and the litigation process begins with a Pendente Lite (Latin for temporary) hearing to establish temporary support, custody-timesharing if there are children, and possession of the home. Thereafter, the discovery process, if not already commenced, will begin to prepare for the final custody, property, and support trials. The Pendente Lite Decree will stay in place until the court enters new orders at the conclusion of the final hearing(s).
Most cases don't go to trial, often, a settlement is reached. The sooner the settlement is reached, the lower the litigation costs. Settlements at the 11th hour often occur, though they are frustrating for all involved, as the money has been expended to prepare for trial. That said, settlements do have an advantage over trial, in that the parties come to terms that they can live with rather than having terms dictated to them by the court. Settlement Agreements also have the ability to go beyond the authority of the court. For example, in Virginia, the court cannot require a party to contribute to the costs of a college education for a child. The parties, however, can agree that a term of the settlement includes college cost coverage for a child.
To properly settle a case, to know what you are getting and what you are giving up, you must be knowledgeable about the issues at hand. With a reasonable amount of investigation, this can be accomplished and settlement discussions can begin. Settlement discussions take many forms. Counsel for one party may draft an agreement for the other party to review; the counsel may exchange multiple letters; and/or settlement conferences involving counsel and clients, with or without the aid of a neutral, may take place.
Settlements can be parsed into segments, however, it is rarely advisable to break it down further than two segments: (1) custody and child-related issues, which may include child support, and (2) property issues, which may include spousal support.
Interim Settlement Agreements can also be done, covering whatever topics the parties may wish to address. Generally an Interim Settlement Agreement, like a Pendente Lite Decree, ceases to exist when a final decree or final Settlement Agreement comes into existence.