Family Court Trials: What To Expect

In Minnesota, divorce and family cases are tried to the court, not to a jury. This usually results in significant cost and time savings for each of the parties.  For example, a case that might take a week to try to a jury may conclude in half the time through the use of a court trial.  While some advocate for the use of juries in family court, most practitioners believe that bench trials are more appropriate. The court is in a much better position to ascertain the legal merits of the arguments of counsel without drawing on emotion, as jurors typically do.

A family court trial is very different than you may have seen on television.  There are no large audiences or surprise witnesses.  The process is quite controlled and deliberate. The initiating party, called the “petitioner,” presents his or her case first. This may include testimony from acquaintances, family members, experts and others.  Once the direct examination of the petitioner’s witnesses concludes, the opposing party’s (“respondent”) lawyer will have an opportunity to cross-examine them. Once the cross examination of all petitioner’s witnesses has concluded, respondent will have an opportunity to present witnesses which the petitioner will have an opportunity to cross examine.

Opening and closing statements are somewhat limited in most family court trials.  Because the judge is the decision-maker, there is no need to explain to the court the concept of a burden of proof, the trial process or explain to the court how to digest the information that  will be presented.  Closing statements often take place in writing.  However, every judge differs in thier preference.

Once the trial concludes, the Court has 90 days in which to render a decision.  The decision is put into writing, filed with the court administrator and delivered to the parties and counsel.  Once the decision is received, either party may elect to file an appeal.  This must be done within 60 days from the entry of the order.  If an appeal should follow a trial, you may expect at least one year to pass until the Court of Appeals affirms or reverses the District Court.

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