What Can I Expect the First Time I Go to Court?

First, if you have reached an agreement for a divorce with your spouse, you won’t have to go to court. This would be viewed by the court as an uncontested case, and uncontested cases are reviewed based on documents submitted by the parties – also referred to as being done “on papers”.

If, however, you have not reached an agreement with your spouse and one of you has started a divorce action against the other, under New York’s law, the plaintiff (the spouse who started the lawsuit) must file a request for judicial intervention (RJI) within 45 days after the summons is served on the defendant. (Sometimes, this can be extended to 120 days.) The filing of the RJI triggers the assignment of the case to a specific judge – usually one sitting in a “matrimonial part” and starts a judicial clock running.

The court must hold a preliminary conference (PC) on the case within 45 days of the case being assigned. Generally, the court will send out a letter to the attorneys scheduling the preliminary conference. The parties must exchange certain documents at least ten days before the conference. The preliminary conference is generally the first court appearance for the parties.

New York requires that the parties and their attorneys appear for the preliminary conference, because the court is required to hold the conference within 45 days of being assigned the case.  Most judges are reluctant to adjourn a PC, and are very reluctant to adjourn it beyond the 45 day deadline.

OK, so what should you expect? First, you should have completed your net worth statement already, and your attorney should have exchanged it with the other side. You should be collecting your pay stubs, and bring as many as you have with you, but certainly the last few and the one you received at the end of the year, if you have it.

The PC has two purposes. First, to let the parties meet briefly with the judge who has been assigned to their case, and secondly, to permit the attorneys to complete a form called a preliminary conference order. This form will outline the issue in the case, fix deadlines for when things need to be completed in the case, address any emergencies, and fix the next court date. The PC Order is an eight page form that the attorneys complete. Here’s what the form looks like:


When you appear in court, you should be neatly dressed and prompt.  Allow extra time for parking or mass transit delays, and to get through security. When you get to the courtroom, there will usually be other cases on, and the atmosphere may appear like a bazaar. Don’t worry. Usually a court clerk or court officer will have the attorneys check in for each case, and they will begin filling out the forms. The cases are called one at a time, usually in the order the cases are ready (i.e., all parties and attorneys are present and checked in). Some judges like to meet with the attorneys alone first, or have their law assistant (an attorney who works for the court) meet with them to get a feel for the case. Once the forms are completed, the parties and their attorneys must each sign, and the case will be formally called. The parties and the attorneys will sit in the court house. Yes, in front of everyone else.

Next, the judge will address you. Usually  the judge will introduce themselves, ask some basic questions about your case and your family, explain a bit about what the purpose of the PC is, and encourage you to cooperate with your attorney and each other to try to resolve the case, or at least to make the best of a difficult situation. The judge will also address any immediate issues that need to be dealt with quickly. On average, the “face time” with the judge lasts no more than five or ten minutes. At the completion of the conference, the PC Order is submitted to the judge for signature, and the attorneys can leave the court room.

Congratulations, you made it through! So, do you feel better now that you know what to expect?

Copyright 2012 Donald R. Wall, Esq.  Copying is prohibited; thank you for only quoting with a link back.