Traditional Court Process of Divorce and Family Law in Maine
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Generally, one of three complaints are filed: Complaint for Divorce—with children; Complaint for Divorce—no children; or, for parents who are unmarried, Complaint for Determination of Paternity, Parental Rights & Responsibilities, Child Support. The other party will be served the complaint and accompanying documents that will also need to be filed with the court.
The complaints just mentioned are called original proceedings. Any motion/complaint filed after the completion of the original proceedings is likely to be one of three post-judgment motions: Motion to Modify Divorce or Parental Rights and Responsibilities Order; Motion to Enforce; and/or Motion for Contempt. Whether it is a post-judgment motion or an original proceeding, the same general steps are followed; however, not all steps are required, and the process is more streamlined for post-judgment motions, particularly for contempt proceedings and when modifying child support only.
When there are children involved,* the parties are scheduled for an initial appearance before a Magistrate. A Magistrate has much of the same authority as a District Court Judge, but only in the family law realm. Depending on the court, it may take 4 to 8 weeks after filing the complaint and serving the other party before a person appears in front of the Magistrate.
In order to move the case along and ultimately get the parties to a final hearing, if necessary (most cases settle by agreement of the parties prior to a final hearing), the Magistrate will attempt to determine what issues are in dispute, such as child support, visitation, and property distribution. If the parties agree on certain issues, the Magistrate will enter an interim order that reflects those agreements and indicates what issues still need to be resolved.
*In cases where children are not involved, after serving the other party and filing the complaint, the parties schedule a conference with a Judge. This usually takes place 60–90 days after the complaint is filed. From there, if the parties are not in agreement, there is usually a period of a few months where parties exchange financial information and then schedule for mediation. The track of a non-child case follows quite similarly to a case with children, just with a Judge and not a Magistrate.
The next step is usually mediation, although a party may request a hearing on a motion for orders prior to judgment. Even so, the court will likely send the parties to mediation prior to scheduling a hearing. The motion might ask the court to determine where the child(ren) live(s) and which party stays in the marital home during the pendency of the proceedings.
Next will be a status conference scheduled before the Magistrate. At the status conference, the Magistrate will review what happened at mediation. If all issues have been agreed upon, the Magistrate is likely to hold an uncontested final hearing, enter the agreement on the record, and enter a written order. At this point the case would end.
If there is not agreement, several things can happen: the court could schedule further mediation, schedule an interim hearing, or set the case for a final hearing. If the court sets the case for trial, this conference will be used as a pretrial conference. Depending on the court, it could go on a trailing docket or be date certain. Family dockets in the Maine courts can be confusing and some procedures are court specific.
If the parties are scheduled for further mediation, this is the next step. If there is an interim hearing, the parties will attend a formal evidentiary hearing at which the Magistrate or a Judge will take evidence and make a decision that will be binding until the time a final order is entered (after a final hearing). Otherwise, the next step is the final hearing. However, the case is then assigned to the Judge who will preside at the final hearing; a pretrial conference to discuss the logistics of the trial will be scheduled with that Judge. A pretrial conference is used to determine the issues in play, what witnesses may be called, the number of possible witnesses to be called, and any number of other evidentiary issues.
The last step is the final hearing. The final hearing will determine an outcome for all issues remaining in dispute. If an appeal is made by either party, the final order controls until the appeal is ruled on. A party has 21 days to make an appeal after the final order is entered; however, the parties can sign a waiver of appeal form to be attached to the final judgment thereby making the judgment final at the time of execution.
An important consideration in cases where children are involved is that a guardian ad litem (GAL) may be appointed for the children by the court. A guardian ad litem can be appointed at any time prior to a final judgment. However, it is unlikely a GAL will be appointed as the parties near the end of the Magistrate process. For a description of the duties of a GAL and a general description of a GAL’s involvement, visit the State of Maine Administrative Office of the Courts.
The steps listed above are a simplified explanation of the Maine divorce and family law process. Usually there is a period of discovery during which parties are able to seek financial information pertaining to one another. It is common that one or more of an array of different motions is filed by either or both parties. A guardian ad litem may be appointed if there are children. These cases can be considerably more complicated than would be indicated as set out above. In other cases, the steps may be abbreviated. For instance, in some courts, at the initial appearance for a motion to modify child support, the parties might have mediation, a case management conference, and a hearing all in the same day. Some courts might use the initial appearance as a pretrial conference depending on the issues left to be resolved.