After both parties have filed and served their initial documents, the Petition, Summons and Response (Step 1), the real work begins.
Step 2 is deciding if you need to file a Request for Order (“RFO”) or not. To determine this you will want to consider:
- Whether or not you and your spouse have made any agreements regarding financial support, child custody and child visitation;
- If you have not made any agreements, are you able to discuss what each of you want amicably, and do you think you can come to an agreement?; or
- Are you two not able to come to an agreement on anything, and do you need immediate financial support, or require immediate custody/visitation orders put into place?
If you and your spouse have discussed, or are able to amicably able to discuss both of your financial needs, and the needs of any children then you probably do not need to file an RFO at this time (Step 2). You can reduce your agreements to writing and you both should sign it; even if it is an informal document, it can later be incorporated into a more formal or final agreement. You will want to make sure to include whether or not one of you is going to receive support, what kind of support (child and/or spousal), how much support, and what this number is based upon. You will also want to spell out what your arrangements will be regarding custody and visitation. Having this in writing now will ensure that everyone is on the same page, and if you potentially need it later on for enforcement you will have it.
If you are close to reaching agreements on these issues, but need a little assistance, you can seek the services of a mediator. A mediator will be a neutral third party that does not have any stake in the game, emotionally or financially. They can help each of you see the other’s point of view and/or help you both meet in the middle. They can even suggest what might be best for the children in the situation, showing one or the other of you a side you may not have considered.
If you have not made any agreements, and are unable to discuss or reach an agreement, then you should seriously consider filing an RFO at this time to ask the Court to assist. Most support orders can be ordered retroactive, but only back to the date of filing of the RFO. It will usually take at least a month to get the hearing, and possibly another couple of weeks before you get your first check, especially if you have to get a wage garnishment to enforce any support order made.
You may also need to have custody and/or visitation orders put into place immediately if you are not getting time with your children. Without an order outlining visitation and custody, you are not able to have a legal/police standby to assist you in being able to exercise your parenting time. It is unfortunate, but many couples cannot agree on a custody/visitation agreement — whether the motive is misplaced belief that they are the best parent for their children, or a calculation that an increase in custodial time will result in a higher level of support, or both parents want to have their children with them 24/7 (which would not be possible, even if you stayed together). You also need to be careful here if you are the parent who currently has the children a greater percentage of the time and are not allowing the other parent full access. If you have legitimate reasons to be concerned, then you will want to file an RFO to establish what those reasons are and ensure that your children are safe. However, you do not want to be caught in the position of withholding your children from the other parent without good cause; this could end up backfiring if your spouse is able to show the court that you are simply being vindictive, whether it is intentional or not. When filing an RFO for custody and visitation, you need to make sure that you are strictly acting in your children’s best interest, not acting based on your emotions and feelings towards your spouse.
Step 3 is preparing and exchanging your Disclosures. Your Disclosures include your Declaration of Disclosure, the Income and Expense Declaration, Schedule of Assets and Debts and Declaration Regarding Service of Declaration of Disclosure. Preparing your disclosures properly may be the most time-consuming step that you will have to deal with, but it is a necessary one and is required by law. Make sure to take the time to prepare your documents properly. Depending on how your case is proceeding you will be required to exchange preliminary disclosures, and the final disclosures can be waived if both parties stipulate that they do not require the other party’s final declaration of disclosure and updated information. There is no way around preparing and serving your preliminary disclosures. You will also want to be completely honest in these forms, if your spouse is able to prove that you intentionally and knowingly lied or withheld information on these documents, there can be some very serious repercussions ordered against you.
Once both parties have served their disclosures, both parties should have all the necessary information to be able to start having informed communication regarding final division of all assets and debts, and realistic discussions about support needed or able to be paid. And no, the Court will not give you a break on having to pay support if you own and are paying on three cars because you feel you need a truck, a sports car and your commuter car, and you are the only driver of all three vehicles, so make sure you are ready to look realistically at your financial situation and not just that of your spouses.