What happens in Virginia divorce court?

Posted on Dec 7, 2022 by Katie Carter

It’s intimidating to go to court. It’s intimidating to do anything, really, when the process and routines are unfamiliar to you, but it’s especially true when those processes result in splitting the assets and liabilities you’ve spent your adulthood accumulating, not to mention determining custody and visitation of your minor children.

There’s a lot at stake in any divorce case, and you’re only human if you’re nervous. It’s completely normal to wonder what to expect, and it’s smart to do some research before you show up. After all, you definitely don’t want to make some kind of faux pas without having realized it! Not only that, but you don’t want to be surprised by things that a little bit of reading might have indicated to you that you should expect.
So, today, I’m going to do my best to explain a little bit about what you can expect to happen in a court hearing. Keep in mind that, in family law, we go to court for all sorts of things, from pendente lite hearings, to motions, and full trials. Each one has its own unique peculiarities, so what I’m talking about here makes some broad generalizations.

1. Your attorney will still be trying to settle your case, if settlement is even a remote possibility (and sometimes even if it isn’t).

It’s not uncommon to resolve a case ‘on the courthouse steps’. That’s an expression lawyers use, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that we’ll literally be standing on the steps outside the courthouse negotiating a case. Maybe your courthouse doesn’t even have steps!

Mostly, we’re in little breakout rooms. These are often located at different points throughout the courthouse, and we often set up shop in one before a hearing. There can be a fair amount of negotiation before we go in to see the judge, and sometimes even after. I’ve definitely been to court and had the judge tell me that he’s going to give us a few more minutes to resolve this between ourselves – effectively kicking us all out of the courtroom!

If you do settle, you can remove your case – so, after all that, you may not go in front of the judge at all. Or maybe you will – it’s impossible to tell ahead of time!

2. You should dress appropriately.

Whether it’s your first time in court or your 120981240985th time, you should dress respectfully. I’ve seen judges kick people out for disrespectful attire. You should be covered and relatively conservatively dressed. Think church clothes – NOT clothes you’d wear to a club, yoga pants, pajamas, low cut or otherwise revealing tops (or too-short skirts).

Ideally, your hair and makeup should be relatively normal, too. You’re probably not going to dye your hair before your court appearance, but normal colors – blonde, brown, red – are preferred, rather than brightly colored or unnaturally treated hair. I know, I know – it’s not the stone ages! But judges are, I am sorry to say, often quite old, and not really followers of the latest trends. I’m sure you look lovely, but judges don’t generally prefer it. Relatively natural makeup, too, if possible. Cover up visible tattoos and piercings.

I know. Believe me, I know. But there’s no sense risking a bad first (or second or third) impression, right?

3. There’s often a lot of waiting.

Different courts handle things differently. Some have a general docket call at a particular time – like, all the cases for the morning are called at 9am. The judge goes through the list, talks to the various attorneys, and figures out what’ll take more or less time. Usually, the quicker cases are dispatched first, and the ones where litigation is involved are bumped to the end to keep things moving.

So, you may go in at 9, and not have your case heard until 1 or 2, depending on how many matters are on for that morning.

Some courts have specific times for specific things – like, your hearing is at 2, so you better be there at 2. It’s a good idea to ask your attorney which applies in your case, and, no matter what, bring snacks just in case you get stuck longer than you expect. You don’t want to be wishing desperately that you could hurry through negotiations, or agree to something that you shouldn’t, because you have low blood sugar.

4. If you are called as a witness or have to give evidence, choose your words carefully.

Most of the time, if we’re going to call our clients, we try to prep them to testify. But, sometimes, all that preparation makes zero difference, because our nervous clients get up there and say whatever pops into their heads.

In general, it’s a good idea to take time considering your response. Remember that the court reporter isn’t recording your silence, so taking time to think will not reflect in the transcript. If you’re nervous, take some deep breaths. Have a sip of water. Avoid looking at your ex, if he’s going to trigger you.

Answer only the question asked. Don’t give extra details. If you can say ‘yes’ or ‘no’, and stop talking – do that.

5. Behave when you’re sitting at counsel table.

While your case is on, you’ll sit at counsel table next to your attorney. Plaintiff (the one who files first) sits on the left as you enter the courtroom (the judge’s right); Defendant (or respondent) sits on the right (the judge’s left).

Sit. Don’t chatter. Don’t glare at your husband, roll your eyes, suck your teeth, or furiously scribble notes to your attorney. Don’t hiss “HE’S LYING” while he’s testifying.

If you can prevent it, try not to cry. It may not be possible, and that’s okay, but don’t make a show of it, if you can. Judges are often uncomfortable with – what they view as – excessive emotion.

If there’s something you need to share with your attorney, calmly write a note, or whisper in her ear, but be discrete.

Court is stressful, and it can bring out all sorts of emotions. Honestly, I find it stressful, too, and it’s not my life that’s being resolved! As long as you’re as prepared as possible, you’ll be in good shape. For more information or to schedule a consultation give our office a call at 757-425-5200.