Finalize the Settlement or Go to Trial
If you come to an settlement agreement, you can go before the judge and finalize your divorce. There is always at least a 90 day waiting period between when you file and when you finalize – even if both spouse’s agree on everything from the get-go.
However, if the spouses are unable to come to an agreement, then the trial process kicks in.
You might have to go to a settlement conference before having a trial in your court case. A settlement case is not like a pre-trial conference; this is because a pre-trial conference is in front of the judge assigned to your case. In a pre-trial conference, the judge decides:
- how long the trial will be
- how many exhibits there will be
- other things about the trial
At a settlement conference, you try to settle so you do not need a trial. A settlement conference is usually ran by a different judge or a family law commissioner. The settlement conference judge will:
- Tell you what they think might happen if you go to trial. For example: in a divorce, the judge will give an opinion about things like the parenting plan, property division, or child support.
- Talk to each of you about the strengths and weaknesses of your case.
- Try to help you reach agreement.
When do I schedule my settlement conference?
The deadline to do so is usually on your court case schedule. You must have a settlement conference, mediation, or other ADR process at least thirty days before trial.
You can schedule it at any time that works for everyone. You can schedule it before, during, or after regular court hours. Please note that the court will not schedule this for you – you and the other party must do it.
Get a list of dates you and the other party are both available. Call the bailiff for a volunteer judge to schedule. Try to call six months before the trial date. Volunteers get booked far in advance. The bailiff will tell you if the judge is available on any of your dates.
After you have agreed on a judge and date, send the judge a confirming letter and the other party a copy. Ask the bailiff where to deliver “working copies” for the conference.
If you cannot find an available judge, check if there is a volunteer program in your county. The volunteers are experienced family law attorneys. There is no fee.
If you cannot schedule a settlement conference with any of the above sources, contact a private mediator or retired judge. There is a fee.
How do I get ready for the settlement conference?
The judge will send a notice explaining what needs to happen. Follow its instructions carefully. It may limit the length of letters and exhibits. For example: The judge asks for a three-page letter describing the situation. Do not write ten pages.
You can attach exhibits to your settlement conference letter. Label them by number and refer to them that way in the letter. Exhibits can be things like child support calculations or an appraisal of your home.
If you give the settlement conference judge any paperwork, you must give the other party’s lawyer or the other party a copy. You will need three copies of everything:
- one for the judge
- one for the other party or lawyer
- one for your own records
What happens if still don’t settle?
Even if you do not settle, the settlement conference judge can still issue some orders. For example: in a divorce, the judge can appoint a guardian ad litem for any dependent children. The judge can appoint a “special master” or expert to advise the court about the children’s welfare, a party’s property, or a party’s physical or mental condition.
The other party cannot use what you said at the settlement conference against you at trial.
For example: You agree to settle for half the marriage’s assets. You decide to do that if there are other parts of the settlement you like. You do not reach agreement. The settlement falls through. You can still ask for more than half the assets at trial. The other party cannot tell the trial judge what happened at the settlement conference. What happens is confidential. It cannot be reported or recorded.
An attorney can help you avoid common mistakes and get the best outcome.
Chad Foster is a trusted Washington lawyer serving Snohomish and King counties with an office in Bothell. Contact us today to discuss your legal issue.