Parties in the initial stages of a family law case such as divorce are looking for certainty as it relates to their case. One of the most common questions any attorney gets from a client is something along the lines of, "What is going to happen?" Or, parties ask questions like, "What will the judge do in my case on X or Y issue?"
One of the many complicating factors is that parties with roughly similar facts on the surface converse with one another about their circumstances. Of course, the cases may have been in front of a different judge or in different county, but parties may be left to wonder why the results are often so different. To many individuals going through a divorce or family law case, they start to look at the court system as a "casino of law." In other words, how can cases with similar fact patterns often end up so differently?
The reality is that in family law cases, there is a lot of gray in terms of what a judge can do. For example, custody cases are typically decided based on what is in the "best interests of the child" when considering various factors. With a standard like this, Judge A could do something entirely different from Judge B. What Judge A views as important, based on his or her outlook of the world, Judge B could have a completely different viewpoint.
Take the United States Supreme Court as an analogy. On the United States Supreme Court, there are liberal judges, conservative judges and judges who are more centrist. What a justice on the far right thinks about a constitutional case for example, might be totally different than what a justice on the far left might think about the same exact case. While both positions might be well-reasoned, they reach totally different conclusions based on their outlook. In many respects, family law is no different.
While liberal and conservative isn't so important in family law, what is more important is whether a judge starts with a fifty-fifty custody schedule in mind or tilts toward believing that a child should be in one home predominately which can make a huge difference as it relates to a family law case. With the same set of facts in a custody case, Judge A and Judge B, therefore, might come up with something completely different if they had the same case.
Take other common legal issues in a divorce case for example. In dividing property and debt in a state where equitable division is the legal standard, a judge has to divide marital property and debt in a "just" manner when considering all the factors. With a term as vague as "just," you have the same quandary. Judge A and Judge B could hear the same exact case and make a different determination as to what is just in terms of dividing marital property and debt. And contrary to what most clients think, a fifty-fifty division is never a guaranty. A judge can entertain lots of different scenarios relative to dividing property and debt.
Consider spousal support as another example. In states where alimony has been abolished in favor of maintenance, a predominant question in determining spousal support is figuring out the "reasonable needs" of the parties compared to their income. What might be "reasonable" expenses to Judge A once again might be completely different than what Judge B finds to be the case. Or, where Judge A might decide to look at the last year of income information, Judge B could decide to take a three or five year average for example. As long as both judges follow the state statute, and give consideration to the statutory factors, a judge could entertain lots of different scenarios based on their outlook on the case.
What then should a party going through a divorce do? The answer is to find an attorney who focuses on family law and who practices regularly in the county where the case is located. By doing so, the attorney can best advise a client about the potential outcomes once the judge assignment has been made. If an attorney has had lots of cases in front of that judge, they will have the experience in front of that judge to know the general parameters of what might happen.
This is why the decision on what attorney to hire is critical. While an experienced family law attorney can never predict with one-hundred percent certainty on what will happen, if you have an experienced family law attorney in your corner, you will not feel as if the court process is so random.