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Step Five: The first meeting with the court, and how to prepare

After you serve and file the court papers, the court will send both parties a notice. This could be two to four weeks or, in the busiest courts, even later. In the meantime, you can call the court clerk if you want to check when your case is scheduled or to make sure they have received your paperwork.

The notice will give you a date and time to meet with a family law Magistrate. This will be your first meeting with the court. This is called a "Case Management Conference."

Things to do before the "Conference"

1.

o    Sign your completed Child Support Affidavit in front of a notary public.

o    File the original form with the court clerk.

o    Send a copy to the Plaintiff.

Court rules require you to do this at least three days before the conference. If you miss this deadline, bring the completed form to the Conference. Save copies for your own file. (The Plaintiff should have already filed and served this form along with the Complaint. If not, bring it with you to the conference.)

2.    Read the Case Management Information sheet that came in the mail with your Conference Notice. You can get another copy here.

3.    Be as prepared as you can on the issues that the Court Magistrate will bring up at the conference. Spend some time thinking about these issues. Discuss them with the other parent, if that's safe to do. Get more important details here.

Go to the conference. It is a critical step in your court case. Be prepared.

At the Conference

This is a time for you to let the court know what is going on with the children and what other issues will need to be decided. It is also a time for you to let the court know if there is something that you need right away. This can be any immediate issue that can't wait for later court decisions, such as:

  • where the children are living
  • child support
  • problems you are having with the children's schedule

The conference is held in a courtroom. It is run by a Family Law Magistrate. The Magistrate will try to move your case along by:

  • Finding out if there is an issue of domestic violence in the family. If there is domestic violence, find a way to tell the Magistrate as soon as possible.
  • Helping you come to an agreement, if you can, about the most important issues - especially issues that affect your children, like residency, parent-child contact, and child support. Learn more about these issues here
  • Finding out what issues you have not been able to agree upon.
  • Giving a written order that says what you have agreed on, what issues still need to be decided, and scheduling the next steps. You will each get a copy of this "Case Management Order." Be sure that you read it and understand it. Mark any upcoming court dates on your calendar. If you do not understand something on this Order, ask the Court Clerk to explain. Or get help here.

You may be ordered to attend a "Kids First" program. There you will learn about helping your children through the separation process. Also, we suggest our "Families Change Parents Guide," which offers you useful parenting strategies during this challenging time.

More Tips

  • To determine child support, the Magistrate will need proof of your income, including your most recent W-2 and paystub. Bring that information to the conference.
  • The Magistrate has the duty to do what is in the best interests of your children. The Magistrate will also tell you about how important it is for you to focus on this goal. Before you go into the conference, think about what should happen so that your children will get what they need. If you are talking with the other parent about an agreement, remember that the court will be looking to see if the children's needs are being met. If you are having trouble deciding these issues, the Magistrate may appoint a guardian ad litem to represent the children. Read more about your parental rights and responsibilities and parenting strategies during a divorce here.
  • If you have agreed on all issues before the conference, the Magistrate can help you by-pass the rest of the steps. If you have not agreed on all issues, the next step will probably be mediation. Be ready to pay the fee ($160 total, or $80 each, unless you get a fee waiver.) and to set a mediation session for a time when you can both be there.

Note: If you need an interim hearing to resolve emergency issues before all of the above steps have been completed, the Magistrate will schedule that next.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q. What is a "guardian ad litem" and do I need one?

A. Sometimes a "guardian ad litem" (GAL) is asked to look into difficult issues and recommend solutions. A GAL is a person trained to investigate problem issues and report back to the court on possible solutions. For example, a GAL might look into a parent's addiction issues and recommend whether this should affect parental rights. If you think your children would benefit from having a GAL, this is the time to ask. A Magistrate can appoint a GAL.

GALs charge an hourly rate. If you think that you need a GAL but cannot afford one, as the Magistrate whether the court would be willing to help you find a free or reduced-fee GAL. There is no guarantee of this. It may not be possible to have a GAL if you and the other parent cannot afford to pay and the court decides that your case does not require a GAL.

Learn more in our article: What is a Guardian ad Litem?