Explaining the Settlement Conferences
Once The Petition and Answer and Counter Petitioner are filed, the parties begin the long process of negotiating and arguing about what they have a right to under the law. If there is a child, they will argue about what child support will be paid and the best way to share custody.
It is not unusual for two months to pass before the parties get their first chance to talk to the judge about what he or she would rule if issues in question are presented at trial.
The “settlement conference” is actually a meeting attended by just the judge and both attorneys. This meeting takes place in the judge’s chambers and the spouses are not allowed to be present. The judge will ask the attorneys what issues are preventing a settlement between the parties. Each attorney explains the case from their client’s perspective and argues the law in favor of their client.
A typical issue discussed in chambers is how much income each spouse makes, for purposes of determining child support. For example, if the father has made an average of $80,000 over the last three years, but had an especially good prior-year in which he made $120,000, then wife’s counsel will argue that his income figure for child support purposes should be the high figure of $120,000.
It will be up to the father’s attorney to argue why this figure is not representative of what the father will make in the future. If convinced that the prior-year is not a good indicator of future income, a judge will usually use the average of the last three years income to determine child support. This one point can have a lasting impact on both parties, as child support will now not be changed unless one of the parties returns to court years down the road, and argues for a modification of the award.
Another issue passionately fought about in the judge’s chambers is whether maintenance should be ordered and how much is fair. The attorneys may also fight about what weight should be given to the fact that one party committed adultery or the ability of a mother to work if she has small children. There will be argument about income if one spouse is temporarily unemployed and whether some assets should be characterized as the separate property of one spouse instead of joint marital property.
The arguments in chambers are heated and fact intense and change the course of negotiations. Typically, after the arguing ceases, the judge will indicate how he would rule if the case went to trial.