1. If your abuse existed behind closed doors, in order for you to exit out the other side of your divorce intact, you might need to consider bringing up the issue of domestic violence during the divorce process (proceed with caution, however, particularly if this a post-decree trial). Immediately contact an organization well-versed in the issues of both domestic violence and the family court system for advice and guidance (in Maricopa County, for example, domestic violence advocates with the Family Violence Prevention Center have offices within the family court buildings). You do not need to go this alone; it can be a very frightening, intimidating process.
2. If your spouse has lied to you before, do not believe him if he says he wants an amicable divorce. I know you wish with all your heart you could do this for the sake of your children but remember who you are dealing with. It may be a set-up for a collaborative divorce in which you sign final divorce papers stating there was no domestic violence during the marriage. Those papers then become credible ammunition should your ex file a post-decree petition. To reiterate the importance of this, see #6, below.
3. NEVER underestimate what the abuser is capable of.
4. If you are using a mediator, carefully reconsider that choice:
- Mediators are duty bound to be neutral and, where domestic violence is an issue, they do not give it the level of importance it deserves, downplay it and perhaps ignore it altogether. When domestic violence is involved, mediators should excuse themselves from your case and advise you to proceed with a family law attorney specializing in domestic violence issues.
- If you do insist on using a mediator, also bring in a family law attorney. Do not look at this as an unnecessary, optional expense, consider it crucial to your outcome. You will have a better chance at establishing an appropriate custody and child support arrangement. Note that it is common practice for the total costs of a divorce handled outside the courtroom, including attorneys fees, to be split equally between both parties.
- Mediators do not adequately educate you about the laws in your state regarding domestic violence, child custody, spousal maintenance and child support.
- Mediators often make egregious errors which will impact you negatively for years to come. These include financial and custodial issues. I initially believed my own case was an anomaly, however, every person I spoke with who used a mediator reported similar, if not the same, experience. You must carefully proof rough drafts and final papers to ensure accuracy. At roughly $250 per hour for their services, there is no excuse for this lack of competence.
6. Do NOT sign final divorce documents stating there were no domestic violence issues in your marriage. This will come back to haunt you in Family Court if a post-decree petition is filed.
7. Do EVERYTHING WITHIN YOUR POWER to stay out of the Family Court System:
- Do not, for one second, believe that you will have your day in court and that truth, evidence and justice will prevail. This venue has nothing whatsoever to do with the truth.
- While the laws may state that all tenets within this system are driven by what is in the "best interests of the children," in practice, the exact opposite occurs.
- In Family Court, unlike Criminal Court, your abuser can falsely accuse you of Parental Alienation Syndrome (PAS), Parental Alienation, or just Alienation. Also be prepared for the finger being pointed at you as the abuser, using drugs or any other disingenuous attempt to divert attention away from the facts.
- You will likely spend all of your time and effort proving that your ex is lying and that you are telling the truth. It will likely be to no avail - read on:
- Judges have been given something called "Discretion." What this means is that they have been handed carte blanche to do whatever they want in their courtrooms. They do not have to follow the law; they can refuse to look at hard evidence; they can be biased; they can treat you with disrespect, accuse you of lying about abuse and even mock you on the stand; they can deny you your rights to due process. They can break every rule of the Code of Judicial Conduct and get away with it and they do. Do all family court judges behave in this manner? No. But it is a roll of the dice as to who is assigned to your case and the risks are too great.
8. If you are unfortunate enough to have been dragged into the front lines of Family Court, NEVER, NEVER, NEVER agree to use any type of court evaluator:
- Despite having the formidable responsibility to act solely in the children's "best interests," court evaluators do the exact opposite and act entirely in their own best interests. They are only concerned with enriching themselves financially and will not hesitate to prolong your case in order to perform as much unnecessary, unsolicited work as possible while driving you into financial ruin.
- Court evaluators have free reign and no cap on the amount of money you must pay them and woe to the person who objects to this. You will be characterized as uncooperative, fractious and worse.
- Court evaluators have an enormous amount of influence over your case. Your case can and will be decided based on whatever they choose to submit to the court.
- Cronyism is pervasive between these evaluators and Family Court Judges.
- Astonishingly, in Maricopa County, all an "expert" is required to do to be added to the roster of Family Court's Behavioral Health Service Providers is put their name on a list. That's it. Their qualifications are self-reported and there is no type of verification process or system for oversight.
- The evaluators are covered by a cloak of judicial immunity.
9. Seriously consider not using an attorney. Do as much research on this topic as you can in order to make an informed decision.
- In Arizona, Fresh Start Women's Resource Center (Fresh Start Family Law Support Services) offers classes on Family Court and for a small fee will help with document preparation. They do not, however, advise on individual cases.
- You can also contact the Legal Advocacy Hotline (AZCADV Legal Advocacy Hotline) at the Arizona Coalition Against Domestic Violence. Their legal advocate informed me of crucial information that, unfortunately, was too late in the game for my own benefit (see #s 6 and 12), however, it is important to note that my own attorney did not advise me of this option. Had I been aware of this information in a timely manner my case may have had a different outcome.
10. If you do have an attorney, you must remain involved in every aspect of your case. This is your life, but your case is just one of many cases they have.
- Do not choose an attorney based on location; take convenience out of the equation. Choose an attorney based on their specialty, experience and reputation.
- Read everything that comes in and proof everything that goes out.
- As with mediators, your attorney may try to convince you that it is very difficult to prove domestic violence in family court and recommend you not bring up the issue.
- If this is the actual divorce process, I would question this advice and seek the guidance of a domestic violence advocate or agency.
- If this is a post-decree trial, and you have signed the divorce papers stating there was no domestic violence during the marriage, they may be correct. However, seek the advice of several advocates before making a decision.
- Go with your instinct. If you feel very strongly that certain pieces of evidence should be included and your attorney disagrees, insist they be included. Likewise, if your attorney wants to go down a road that you believe is not pertinent to your case, insist they stop. You only have so much time allotted at trial and you would not believe how quickly it flies by. You need to ensure that every moment is utilized to its fullest capacity.
- I believe that a family law attorney has an obligation to educate you on all areas pertinent to your case including, but not limited to, applicable laws, what to expect at each pretrial hearing and the trial itself, possible outcomes, the risks of using a court evaluator and Parental Alienation. You are new to this arena and this is their area of expertise. These are but a few examples from my own case on the topic of exhibits alone that I was not prepared for:
- At the start of my trial, the judge asked if we would be willing to file petitions at a later date on the matter of attorneys fees. Both sides said yes, however, this alone added more than $1,000 in attorneys fees.
- Again, at the start of trial, the judge asked for submission of any exhibits which substantiated attorneys fees. As both attorneys scrambled to determine which exhibits to submit, I wonder now why we did not submit all of them - every exhibit was relevant to time billed by my attorney.
- After countless hours determining which exhibits were most important to submit, followed by submission of required lists and multiple copies of the exhibits themselves, to both the court and opposing counsel, the judge allowed only those exhibits discussed at the trial itself. All remaining exhibits were dismissed.
12. Practice Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) prior to going to trial. You are expected to behave perfectly at trial, as unfair as this is may seem considering all you have been through. Think only about the questions before you at trial and leave emotion out of your responses. Opposing counsel will try their hardest to get a rise out of you. Any sign of anger or sarcasm will accomplish two things: it will simultaneously discredit your position and will be held against you. You must be seen as calm and credible.
13. It is my understanding that, as your case progresses and you get the distinct feeling that your judge is biased against you during pretrial hearings and telephone conferences, you have the option of a one-time request for a new judge prior to the start of the actual trial. I have received conflicting reports on this and have been unable to substantiate one way or the other, however, since it is a possibility I wanted to provide the information.
14. You must become knowledgeable in all of the above to become your own best advocate.