Step Five: The first meeting with the court, and how to prepare

At the first court date, what happens will depend on whether or not your spouse responded to the divorce papers you filed.

If they “answered” and filed a counter-claim (their own paperwork asking for a divorce), the first court hearing you will be scheduled for is called a “Trial Management Conference.” At this conference, the court will help you figure out what your next step should be. If you and your spouse come to an agreement before your scheduled trial management conference, you can notify the court and request a Final Uncontested Hearing sooner. We explain all of your options in more detail below.

If they did not “answer” and didn’t file their own paperwork asking for a divorce, the court assumes that they don’t contest the divorce. If this is the case, your first hearing will be an “uncontested final hearing.” This doesn’t always mean that this will be your last court hearing. You will still need to work out any disagreements you have with your spouse about the divorce. We explain all of your options in more detail below.

If you are having a hard time understanding the paperwork the court sent you, check out our explanations of these notices:

 

Hide Understanding your “Family Matter Scheduling Order ” (For a Trial Management Conference)

The court has given you this Order to make sure that your case moves forward as quickly as possible. This information is to help you understand what this Order requires you to do.

About the “Financial Statement”

Get this form from the court clerk, use the fillable .pdf version of the form. Check the information you received with your court forms packet. It includes instructions about the financial statement.

About the "Discovery Deadline"

"Discovery" is the formal process of finding out information about the other party. In a divorce, this usually means "discovering" financial information. In the simplest cases, the information you disclose on the required Financial Statement court form will be enough. You and the court can use this information to decide how to fairly divide your property and debts. In this case, you do not need to worry about further "discovery."

However, if you or the other party has lots of assets — like pensions, real estate, or business holdings, you may need "discovery." Also, if you think that the other party is hiding income or assets from you, or if you are asking for spousal support, you may need discovery. You can “discover” financial information by sending the party a list of questions for them to answer or requesting a list of documents. Because requesting discovery and answering discovery requests can be complicated, you should try to get a lawyer to help you with your case if possible.

About Mediation

If you and your spouse don't agree on all the issues (how all property and debts will be divided, spousal support, etc.), you may want to mediate to see if you can reach an agreement. In a divorce without children, the court won't require the parties to mediate, so if you want to mediate, you have to ask for mediation. You will meet with a mediator who is a trained neutral person who will help you and your spouse discuss all the issues and try to reach an agreement.

You can ask to be scheduled for mediation by asking the judge in person at your first court date. If you want to be scheduled for mediation sooner, you can ask for mediation by writing the clerk a letter. Make sure you send a copy of your letter to your spouse.

The court charges $80 per party for mediation. This will let you meet with a court mediator for up to two (approximately) three-hour sessions. If you can't afford the $80 mediation fee, you can ask for a fee waiver. Ask the judge or the clerk for the fee waiver application and affidavit, or you can find them here.

If you live in Southern Maine, you can also choose to mediate outside the court through the Opportunity Alliance, located in South Portland. The Opportunity Alliance offers mediation services on a sliding scale fee system and the services are open to anyone who needs them regardless of ability to pay.

About Witness and Exhibit Lists

If you expect to be using witnesses (other than yourself) or exhibits (like financial records), the court requires you to provide a list of these people and items before your court hearing. At the same time you will need to list what issues you will be asking the court to decide. For example, what assets and debts need to be divided? What, if any, spousal support will be ordered?

About Sanctions

If you don't follow this order (like by not following the schedule the court has set), the court can penalize you. The court may:

  • dismiss your case
  • "default" you—meaning that your side of the issues will not be heard and considered; the court will give an Order based on what the other party is asking for
  • decide that you cannot use witnesses or exhibits at your hearing because you did not disclose them before the deadline
  • make you pay for any losses the other party had because you didn't follow the Order

What if I can’t meet this schedule?

As the Order says, it will become final within 10 days of the Order's date. If you don't think you can meet these deadlines, you must notify the Court in writing before this 10 day deadline. Otherwise, the court will assume that you will follow the order. File any objections with the court clerk and send a copy to the other party. After this 10 day period, it will be much harder to get the court to change the schedule.

Always notify the court and the other party any time you can't make a court date or meet a court deadline. Even if you do this, you can still be penalized for not following the Order, but this may help you to avoid the harshest sanctions.

Finally, if at any time you and the other party agree on all issues involved in your divorce, send a letter to the court asking for an “uncontested hearing date.” This means that you will be able to skip all of the other steps and go straight to a final hearing.

 

 

Hide Understanding your “Scheduling Notice” and “Checklist” (For an Uncontested Final Hearing)

The “Scheduling Notice” and “Checklist for Uncontested Final Divorce Hearing” do two basic things:

  1. Let you know the date, time, and location of your uncontested final divorce hearing.
  2. Make sure you have taken all the steps needed to allow the court to grant your divorce.

You will need to use the checklist no matter how you get to your Uncontested Final Divorce Hearing – even if you started out with a Case Management Conference and later came to an agreement with your spouse.

Here is what each checklist item means:

  1. “Sixty (60) days has passed since the SUMMONS and COMPLAINT were served”
    • The Court can’t grant your divorce unless 60 days have gone by since you served your spouse with your divorce papers.
    • The Court shouldn’t ever schedule this hearing any time before this has happened, so you can check this off without worrying about it.
  2. “A FINANCIAL STATEMENT or CERTIFICATE IN LIEU OF FINANCIAL STATEMENT is properly completed and signed by both parties according to Rule 80(c).”
    • You need to fill out a “financial statement,” which is basically an accounting of all of your assets and debts. If you don’t have a lot of assets or debt, or you and your spouse have agreed on how everything will be divided, you can use the Certificate instead.
    • You can find both a fillable .pdf and a guided interview version of the Certificate on our website.
  3. “If the other party is not present, a Federal Affidavit of Residency is completed and filed.”
    • This just means that if your spouse hasn’t answered your divorce complaint, hasn’t appeared in court at any time during the divorce process, and isn’t going to show up for the Final Uncontested Hearing, you need to fill out and submit a form.
    • If your spouse has responded, or shown up in court, you don’t need to worry about this box – it doesn’t apply to you.
    • This form asks for information about your spouse, like where they live or work, to show that they aren’t in the military. It also asks where you live, and where your spouse lives, to make sure you are in the right Court. This information will confirm that the court has the power to grant your divorce.
    • You can find a fillable .pdf version and a guided interview version of this “Federal Affidavit of Residency” on our website.
  4. “If the other party has entered his/her appearance…(1) providing a copy of a letter delivered or mailed to the other party…or (2) filing a signed statement by the other party agreeing to an uncontested hearing on that date.”
    • This box is to make sure that your spouse knows that the final uncontested hearing is happening. This is mostly for cases where they don’t show up in court, and say later that it was because they didn’t know the hearing was happening on that day.
    • You will need to show either that:
      1. You sent a letter or notice to your spouse at least ten days before the hearing, or
      2. Your spouse has agreed to and signed off on having an uncontested hearing on the date the hearing is scheduled.
  5. “If the parties have reached an agreement, the agreement should be reduced to writing, signed by both parties, and the original filed with the Court.”
    • This just means that if you have an agreement with your spouse, it needs to be in writing, you both need to sign it, and you need to “file” it with the court.
    • You can file this by giving the original to the Court Clerk – make sure to keep a copy for yourself.
  6. “If either party owns or has any interest in real estate, regardless of any agreement as to the ownership or division of the real estate, a CERTIFICATE CONCERNING REAL ESTATE must be completed, including the Book and Page in the Registry of Deeds that describes the real estate.”
    • If you or your spouse own real estate (land, with or without a house) you will need to fill out a “Certificate Concerning Real Estate” – even if you have agreed about what to do with it.
    • You will need to look up the property in the County Registry of Deeds, and fill out the information for which page, in which book, the record of the property is kept in.
    • You can find a fillable .pdf version or a guided interview version of this form on our website.
  7. “If any attorney represents either party, a proposed DIVORCE JUDGMENT must be prepared. If real estate is involved, the proposed judgment must include language required by 19-A M.R.S.A. Section 953(5).”
    • This box only applies if either you, or your spouse, are represented by a lawyer in your divorce case.
    • If you, or your spouse, have a lawyer, they will take care of this requirement, and probably also this entire checklist.