What To Expect In Contested Divorce And Custody Actions

Every year, many experience what begins as a “passion-filled” romance.  However, unfortunately, often times the relationship ends in a negative, heated, “passion-filled” divorce or custody action.  And, for some, the idea of winning or losing takes on great importance.  But as the character (Attorney) played by Danny Devito in the hit movie “War of the Roses” stated, “There is no winning!  Only degrees of losing!”  Thus, regardless of which side of the fence one ends up on, the party filing the action, or the party defending the action, the procedure is the same as to what one can expect.  And for the sake of this article, only “contested” actions will be addressed. 
Once the Complaint for Divorce or Custody action is filed and the Defendant has been served, the Defendant has thirty (30) days in which to file his/her Answer.  In the Answer, the Defendant is simply admitting or denying allegations contained in the Plaintiff’s Complaint.  The Defendant may also assert various defenses and provide allegations in defense of the case, as well as, relief the Defendant is seeking.  If the Defendant does not file an Answer, the Plaintiff may obtain a “default” judgment.
Most Answers will include a Counterclaim.  In the Counterclaim, the Defendant re-alleges and incorporates the paragraphs of his/her Answer into the Counterclaim.  The Defendant sets for his/her allegations in the case and makes a request for the relief he/she is seeking (e.g., the marital home, custody of the children, child support, alimony, Attorney’s fees, the 2016 Mercedes C350, the 70″ HD television, 50% of the 401(k), 75% of the Apple stock, etc.).
Once the Answer & Counterclaim has been filed and served on the opposing party, the parties, under Georgia law, are allowed up to six (6) months to engage in  DISCOVERY.  In any civil litigation matter filed in the State or Superior Court, Georgia law allows each party, under the Civil Practice Act, up to six (6) months to engage in what is known as “Discovery”.
Discovery includes: interrogatories (questions which must be answered under oath), requests for production of documents and notice to produce (the requesting of documents), requests for admissions (asking the other party to admit to certain facts under oath), and depositions (live questions answered in front of a court reporter). NO ONE ENJOYS HAVING TO RESPOND TO DISCOVERY, as often it is seen as intrusive and burdensome.
Discovery often delves into issues of property ownership, bank statements, credit card statements, financial accounts/records, text messages, phone records, social media accounts, e-mails, audio/video recordings, tax returns, etc.
Discovery requests may include requests for e-mail/social media passwords, screen names, etc., for all social media, dating sites, e-mail accounts, cell phone records, etc.  However, a party may enter an objection to certain discovery requests if there is a legal basis for the objection.  Once an objection is made, if the Attorneys are unable to resolve the discovery dispute, the judge will decide whether the objection is sustained (warranted) or whether the objecting party is required to provide the requested response.
Responses to discovery, by law, are required to be produced within thirty (30) days from the date of service. If the responses are not timely produced, the opposing Attorney is first required to make a “good faith” effort to resolve any issues of discovery before he/she can file a motion to compel.
Documents typically requested in discovery tend to relate to financial accounts, income information, property ownership, etc. Interrogatories are more broad and may include, among other issues, seeking information about criminal record history, possible extra-marital affairs, stability of the opposing party, drug/alcohol abuse, etc.  Again, no one enjoys having to respond to discovery (for a multitude of reasons); however, if a party simply refuses to respond, then the opposing Attorney may file a “Motion to Compel Discovery” which could lead to sanctions and contempt of court, as well as, possible incarceration.
Prior to the “Final Hearing”, many Judge’s require the parties to attend “Mediation”.  At mediation, an independent mediator (a/k/a “Neutral”) will attempt to help the parties reach an agreement as to the issues in the case. If a full agreement can be reached, the parties will sign a “Mediation Agreement” and the Attorneys can present a “Settlement Agreement” and proposed “Final Order” to the Judge to conclude the matter. If only some of the issues are resolved, the parties will sign a “Partial Mediation Agreement”, and the Judge will make a ruling on any remaining, unresolved, issues.
An option in some jurisdictions includes having a Superior Court Judge (not the judge the case is assigned to) act as the mediator.  This option is beneficial if the parties have “dug their heels in” and refuse to budge, or if the parties have unrealistic expectations.
If there are minor children involved in the case, the parents are typically ordered to attend a “parenting seminar”.  The seminar typically lasts four (4) hours.  The parties are NOT required to attend the seminar together.  Upon completion, a Certificate of Completion will be filed with the court clerk’s office.  Some Judges will not grant the divorce until the parenting seminar has been attended, at a minimum, by the Plaintiff.
Once the parties have completed discovery, mediation, and the parenting seminar (assuming that the parties were unable to reach a full agreement as to all issues), the case will be set down for trial.
Prior to the commencement of trial, the Judge will typically give the parties once last opportunity to discuss and resolve their issues. In fact, Judges are known for lecturing the parties and issuing a warning of the likelihood of disappointment by one or both of the parties if the decision is left to the Judge.  Nevertheless, if the issues remain unresolved, the parties are entitled to either a “Bench Trial” (a trial in which the Judge rules on the case), or a “Jury Trial” (a trial in which jurors render a verdict).  Typically, in divorce/custody actions, the vast majority of these cases are resolved through a Bench Trial.  Jury Trials are typically held in cases where substantial assets and property are involved.
Once the verdict has been rendered, either party may seek post-judgment relief, typically by filing motions either requesting that the Judge reconsider his/her decision, or a request for a new trial, or a Notice of Appeal, if the litigant believes that the court committed reversible errors in its rulings.
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Should you have questions or need legal assistance, call VANJOHNSON LAW FIRM, LLC, (404) 551-2428, or e-mail: info@vanjohnsonlaw.us . Operators are standing by 24/7.

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