Parental Responsibility Trials in FL: Go in Prepared

It's a common misconception that all parental responsibility cases go to trial. In fact, most parents reach a complete settlement agreement through some form of alternative dispute resolution.

If you and the other parent can't settle, your case will go to trial for a judge to decide.

Custody X Change is software that creates parenting plans and custody schedules you can present in a trial.

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To help ensure consistency and fairness, Florida requires the same judicial officer to preside over all your hearings and your trial. Usually this is a judge, but in some counties, parents representing themselves have cases heard by a general magistrate.

The same court process and trial rules apply regardless of whether a judge or magistrate hears your case, but a magistrate’s decision must be approved by a judge.

In Florida, family court cases do not have juries.

Trials are open to the public, but parents can request a closed courtroom if they have confidentiality or safety concerns.

Scheduling and timing

When parents decide to give up on court-ordered mediation, the court schedules a trial to resolve their remaining disagreements. You will likely wait three months to a year for your trial to begin.

Trials for straightforward cases often finish in a day. More complex trials, however, can last days or even weeks.

Preparing for your trial

Your trial will result in a final judgment that includes a parenting plan, time-sharing arrangement and child support order, so effective preparation is crucial.

If you have a lawyer, they'll guide you through preparations and speak to the judge for you. They'll help you gather evidence, choose witnesses, develop arguments and plan testimony. You should always be honest with your attorney so they can best prepare your case.

If you're representing yourself, prepare as thoroughly as a lawyer would. Review the judge's policies for their courtroom, the Florida Rules of Procedure and expectations for courtroom behavior. Failure to follow these will reflect negatively on you and could affect the outcome of your case.

Evidence

Parties present evidence to the judge to prove their claims or challenge the other parent’s claims. The judge will only allow evidence that's been submitted following properly.

When selecting evidence, consider what will strengthen your case.

Common types of evidence include:

  • Family calendars
  • Photos and videos
  • Emails, text messages or call logs
  • Social media posts
  • School records and report cards
  • Medical records
  • Financial and legal documents

Evidence must be relevant to parenting. For example, exhibits relating to a divorce issue like infidelity won’t be accepted.

Witnesses

You'll also need to decide who you'll call as witnesses to support your case.

Two types of witnesses exist: expert and lay.

Expert witnesses are appointed by the court or hired by parents to offer professional opinions. They include social investigators and other forensic psychologists.

Lay witnesses are non-experts with first-hand knowledge relevant to your case. They can only testify to what they have personally observed. These witnesses may include:

  • Parents themselves
  • Friends, relatives and neighbors
  • Teachers and school counselors
  • Child care providers
  • Family doctors and therapists
  • Clergy members
  • Social workers

Children rarely testify at parental responsibility trials. When a judge does permit it in special circumstances, the children typically appear via video to keep them out of the courtroom.

Parents (or their lawyers) have the right to question the other parent’s witnesses, and to present evidence to refute testimony.

Witnesses swear to tell the truth and can face legal consequences if they lie in a trial or deposition (an interview with the other party).

They must comply with orders to attend trials and depositions. If they can't attend trial in person, they can testify by phone or video.

Discovery

During discovery, parents exchange information so each knows what the other is preparing. This process can last months. You'll have to hand over financial documents and a witness list. You might also want to take steps like interviewing the other parent's witnesses via depositions.

What happens in a trial

In family law trials, a judge or general magistrate sits at the front of the courtroom on the bench. Parents sit at separate tables with their lawyers, facing the bench, and observers sit behind them in the gallery. Witnesses can only enter the gallery after they’ve testified, and your children can never observe the trial.

When it's time to begin, the bailiff asks everyone to stand as the judge enters the courtroom. The judge or a court clerk reviews the rules, decisions made in pre-trial hearings and any settlement agreements that have already been filed.

Then, the petitioner (the parent who filed the case) makes an opening statement that presents their overall argument and previews their evidence. The respondent (the other parent) can follow with their own opening statement.

Next, the petitioner offers evidence and calls witnesses. After the petitioner questions each witness, the respondent can also ask questions of the witness in what's called cross-examination.

Once the petitioner has presented their case, the respondent presents evidence and calls witnesses. The petitioner has the right to cross-examine the respondent’s witnesses.

After all the evidence has been presented, each parent gives a closing argument.

If you have a lawyer, they will make the opening and closing statements, speak to the judge for you, and question witnesses. If you're representing yourself, you will do all of this yourself.

Judges may announce their decisions immediately, but often they call a short recess while they review the evidence. Some may adjourn for days or even weeks if the case is complex.

The details of the decision will be mailed to you within 10 days of the announcement, in the form of a final judgment. If your case was heard by a general magistrate, a supervising judge must first approve the judgment.

Your case is now closed. In rare situations, a parent may contest a final judgment.

Trial tips

Parental responsibility trials can be confusing and stressful, and a misstep can have far-reaching consequences. It’s crucial to know what’s expected of you. Keep the following in mind:

  • Before your trial date, observe a trial with your judge.
  • Research courtroom rules and expectations in your county and with your judge.
  • On trial days, dress like you’re going to a job interview or to church.
  • Arrive early to find parking, go through security, and locate the courtroom.
  • Don’t bring your children.
  • Friends and family can sit in the gallery, but don’t bring new romantic partners.
  • Don’t appear too friendly with witnesses who are supposed to be unbiased.
  • Always refer to the judge or magistrate as “Your Honor.”
  • Show respect to everyone, and never interrupt.
  • Ask for clarification if you don’t understand something.
  • When answering questions, take your time, but don’t ramble or go off-topic.
  • Give your answers truthfully and only explain your reasoning if prompted.
  • Control your emotions; the judge can charge you with contempt if you’re disruptive.
Staying organized

Going to trial over parental responsibility and time-sharing requires serious organization.

You'll need to present evidence, which could range from a log of interactions with the other parent to a calendar showing when you care for your child. You should also present a proposed parenting plan and parenting time schedule to the court.

The Custody X Change app lets you create and manage all of these elements in one place with a variety of tools you can use in Florida.

With a digital journal, personalized custody calendars, a parenting plan template and more, Custody X Change makes sure you’re prepared not only for trial, but for every step of your case.

Take advantage of our technology to get what’s best for your children.

Custody X Change is software that creates parenting plans and custody schedules you can present in a trial.

Make My Florida Plan Now

Custody X Change is software that creates parenting plans and custody schedules you can present in a trial.

Make My Plan