The Steps in a Court Case: 4 - 6

Step 4. Answer

What happens when the respondent is served?
Once the summons is served on the respondent, a period of 30 days is given for the filing of a response. This is called the Answer. If no response is made, the respondent is in default.

What if we agree on everything?
Agreement about all the issues means the case is “uncontested.” This means the case can normally be handled faster. You still must go to court to show that you meet the legal requirements for the court to approve your agreement. What if we can’t agree? If the parties cannot agree about all issues, the case is "contested." The fastest and least expensive way to resolve disputes is to try to work out the issues with the other party in advance. The forms and materials on this website are NOT intended for contested cases, as they are very complex to be competently handled by anyone not assisted by a lawyer. Mediation can be useful for negotiating agreements. Some courts require people to go to mediation to try to resolve contested issues. If you are not able to work out your differences, you should contact a lawyer to help you present your case in court. People with contested cases must follow the law, the rules of procedure, and rules of evidence to prove their case. Can I contact the judge assigned to my case if I have questions or concerns? No! Judges must be fair to all parties. Rules of judicial conduct restrict judges from speaking to any party about their case outside of a hearing where all parties may be present and have their say.

Step 5. Preparing for the Hearing

The petition has been filed and the respondent has been served. What other forms are required to get ready for my hearing?
There may be additional forms that need to be prepared and filed with the court before your hearing. The judge may wish to look over a proposed judgment before the hearing. Check with your local court for local court-specific forms. Required forms may include (depending on the nature of your case):

  • Certificate of Compliance of this Litigant Awareness Program
  • Statement of Income and Expenses
  • Statement of Property and Debts
  • Form 14 Information Sheet
  • Certificate of Dissolution

And if there are children age 17 or under involved:

  • Documentation of Attendance at Parent Education Program
  • Parenting Plan Part A (residential schedule) and Part B/Form 14 (child support)
  • Documentation of Compliance with Order for Mediation (see local rules)

There may be additional paperwork to gather for the hearing, such as exhibits to be introduced as evidence.

What should I bring to the hearing?
You need to bring all the paperwork involved in your case. If your case is contested you will have to prove your case with evidence, which can include the testimony of other witnesses, documents, and exhibits. It is a good idea to have copies of exhibits to give to the court and to the other party(s) in the case. Here are some examples of possible exhibits: financial records, income tax statements, pay check stubs, your monthly bills, deeds and/or titles to property, and bank account and pension statements.

Can I find out what the other party is going to say and bring to the hearing?
Both you and the respondent have the right to get information about witnesses and copies of documents before the hearing. The process of obtaining and exchanging such information or evidence is called discovery.

The rules of what you are allowed to get through discovery are complicated, and strict time limits apply. You will benefit from having the assistance of a lawyer if you need to get a lot of discovery for your case.

Can I try to settle my case before the hearing?
Even after legal proceedings are initiated parties can settle their differences before the hearing. Most cases do settle out of court. It is better for everyone when parties agree. Mediation is always available at any time throughout the legal process and highly recommended. The family court judge/commissioner can and many times will appoint a mediator, particularly if parents can't agree about how the children will be cared for and how the parents will share their parenting responsibilities.

Step 6. The Hearing

How is a hearing scheduled?
In Missouri, hearings are scheduled through the circuit court. In some circuits, a litigant will not be placed on the docket automatically, but will need to request a hearing to get on the docket. Check with your local court for the applicable procedure.

What needs to be done to prepare for the hearing?
There are many things that need to be done before your court date and on the day of your appearance. You may want to print a copy of this page to keep in your file.

  • Read the laws pertaining to your case. Reading these laws will help prepare you for the case and avoid some mistakes.

  • Properly fill out and turn in all court forms. This is an important process. Your paperwork is your only way of communicating with the judge. Direct contact with the judge outside of the courtroom is prohibited. Forms can be filled out and filed in the clerk's office. Remember, court employees cannot give legal advice.

  • Make sure to serve the other party with court papers detailing the case against them. You must give a copy of all documents filed with the court to the other party. This is required so the other side is informed about the case.

  • Visit the courtroom before your trial so you can become familiar with court procedures. You may want to call the clerk's office to get a schedule of upcoming cases. Most family law matters are handled in open court. Watching how cases are presented in court will help you prepare for what happens in the courtroom.

  • Make sure to pay all the fees. Some court paperwork cannot be filed without paying a fee. If you feel that you cannot pay the fees, then you can apply for a waiver of the fees. You should ask the clerk's office for a waiver form.

  • Call in advance if you need special accommodations. The court gladly will help anyone with a disability. Calling in advance will help the court make your experience in the courtroom the best possible.

  • Write out any questions for witnesses in advance. This process will help you organize your case and make sure you cover critical elements that the witness may know. Think about the kind of testimony (information) you want from the witness when writing questions you intend to ask.

  • Create an outline/brief summary of your case. This will help in the organization of your case. If you filed the case, you have the responsibility to prove your legal right to receive what you are requesting. If you go into court unprepared then you may forget important points that may affect the outcome of your case.

I’ve never been to court. What should I expect?
Some courts use a formal room like those portrayed in movies or on television. But some hearings may be held in a smaller courtroom or even in the judge’s or commissioner’s office. Family law cases take place in a "court of record." That means that a court reporter will make a record of what is said. Respectful behavior is expected in the courtroom.

What do I need to do the day of my hearing?
  • Wear appropriate attire for the courtroom. Wearing nice clothes will earn you respect from the others in the courtroom. Items such as dress pants and a collared shirt are sufficient.

  • Arrive at court early. Remember, courts have tight security! It may take a while to get in the building. The judge will not appreciate anyone being late for a hearing, so give yourself plenty of time to get through security and to make your way to the courtroom.

  • Find out in advance where the courthouse is and the specific courtroom where your case is assigned. When you arrive at court, check to make sure your case is on the docket (often posted by the door to the courtroom). If not, check with the court clerk.

  • Read and organize all documents. Being familiar with the documents of the case will help you reach a satisfactory outcome.

  • Make sure your witnesses show up for court. This is important so you can get their testimony into the record. If you are having trouble getting a witness to show up, you can request in advance that the court clerk issue a subpoena. This will require an uncooperative witness to show up.

  • Before you go into court make sure you turn off all electronic items, i.e., cell phone, pagers, etc. Interruptions such as ringing cell phones are not appreciated by the court. Avoid any disruptions of other cases.

  • Please dispose of any food or drinks before you enter the courtroom. It is common court etiquette to leave all food and drink outside the courtroom.

  • Make sure you enter and leave the courtroom quietly, so as not to disturb others. Silence is required of people when they are in a courtroom. Other cases may be in progress when you arrive or depart the courtroom.

  • The courtroom might have other people in it. Be ready to speak in front of strangers who are there. The courtroom is a public space. People could be there observing or waiting for their case. Be prepared to share your information with the judge and anyone else who happens to be present.

What happens during the hearing?
  • The judge or commissioner will call your case for the hearing. Make sure you stand when the judge/commissioner enters and when you are talking to the judge/commissioner.

  • Address the judge or commissioner as "Your Honor." Do not interrupt the judge/commissioner while he or she is talking. Speak respectfully so the judge focuses on what you are saying when it is your turn to speak.

  • When your case is called for hearing, respond that you are "present." The judge will tell you when you can come forward to the front of the courtroom. The judge or commissioner will make some remarks before your hearing begins. Listen to the judge and ask for any clarification if you do not understand something. An official court reporter will be taking down the testimony or the hearing will be tape recorded. Make sure you speak loud enough to be heard.

  • The petitioner will be heard first. The judge may ask the petitioner to make a brief summary of the case to help the judge understand what is being requested in this hearing. At this time, the petitioner and petitioner's witnesses will testify.

  • Testimony of Witnesses. Before the witnesses testify they will be given an oath by the judge. The first question to ask each witness is the witness's name and address, and if appropriate, the witness's occupation. This will help lay a framework for further questions. After this the witness may be asked questions that will bring out the information pertaining to the case. Witnesses (other than yourself), must be asked to respond to questions. They do not make statements. The witness provides the testimony, so the witness needs to include the information as part of the answer. The other party may object to evidence which is offered. The party offering the evidence may respond to the objection. The judge or commissioner will decide if the objection is valid. Wait for the judge's decision before you proceed and do not interrupt the judge. You have the right to cross examine the other side's witnesses. Make sure you have questions written down when you go up to cross examine. Show respect for all witnesses, even though they may be testifying against you.

  • The respondent is heard second. The respondent who appears in court also has the opportunity to summarize his or her view of the case, to present evidence, and call witnesses. The petitioner may object to evidence offered by the respondent. During the course of the hearing the judge may ask questions at any time. Listen attentively to the question and then answer.

  • Rebuttal evidence. After the respondent’s presentation, the petitioner may present evidence to rebut (contradict) evidence the respondent presented. The respondent also may present rebuttal evidence.

THE CAREFUL INTRODUCTION OF EVIDENCE IS IMPORTANT. The judge will decide the case on the evidence presented. In contested cases it is recommended that you have the assistance of a lawyer to present your case so that the best record possible can be created in your case.

When will the judge decide my case?
After the evidence, the judge or commissioner will make a decision, which may be announced at the time of the hearing. But often the judge or commissioner will take additional time to consider the evidence and the law before deciding a case.

The case will conclude with a written order from the judge. This is the final outcome of the case. You may be required to write the judgment. IT IS YOUR RESPONSIBILITY THAT THE JUDGMENT IS WRITTEN CORRECTLY AND INCLUDES EVERYTHING YOU EXPECTED. A party who did not draft the judgment usually will have an opportunity to review the judgment or order before it is entered. The clerk will mail a copy of the signed order or judgment to each party.

What do I have to do after the judge signs the judgment or order?
First, you must do all the things the judge ordered you to do. Failing to do what the judge ordered may result in additional court proceedings for enforcement of the judgment or for contempt of court.

If another party in the case fails to comply with the judge's orders you bring it to the judge's attention by filing enforcement or contempt proceedings with the court.

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