What is The Family Court Trial Process in California

By Teo Spengler

Updated August 27, 2019

Spouses couple signing decree papers getting divorced in lawyers office


Family Court is the place you go in California for issues relating to family relationships like parents and children, marriages, divorces, guardianship, emancipation and juvenile delinquency. Almost all superior courts in California have family law self-help information for those who need to understand the system and prepare for different types of cases. The family law court process for evidentiary hearings and trials isn't any more or less difficult than other types of court trials once you become familiar with the procedure.

Introduction to Family Court

Family court is not a special level of court, but a part of California trial courts called superior courts. The judges, however, usually handle only family law cases and become familiar with the law, rules and procedures. This is the court you head to if you are getting a divorce, changing a child's name, adopting kids or emancipating them or trying to change a child support order or parenting plan.

Like in other types of California cases, much of what happens in a family court proceeding does not occur before the judge. You or your attorney will likely spend more time in family court preparing documents, seeking out evidence and talking to mediators or arbitrators than in a trial or evidentiary hearing.

But the important contested matters – where you argue one way and someone else argues the other – often end up in evidentiary hearings and may conclude in a trial before a family court judge. An evidentiary hearing is conducted like a one-issue trial, during which each party gets a chance to speak, present witnesses and evidence and question the other party's witnesses.

Family Law Case Preparation

In California, family law matters that cannot be negotiated out between the parties must be resolved in litigation. The family court trial process begins with a summons and complaint, like every other trial. The complaint, sometimes called a petition, identifies the parties and the type of case, then sets out the basic charges and demands. It must be served on the other party who then responds.

The next part of case preparation is perhaps the most important. Both parties or their legal teams gather evidence and identify disputed facts and applications of law. California law gives both parties the right to ask the other side for the facts they are asserting and the law they claim applies. It also gives each party the legal duty to provide that information to the other side under penalty of perjury.

The main method of exchanging evidence in California is called discovery. Four essential discovery techniques set out in the law include:

  1. Interrogatories, which are written questions that must be answered in full by the other party.
  2. Requests for admissions, which are written requests to admit or deny key facts and allegations.
  3. Requests for production, which demand that the other party hand over copies of documents or other physical evidence relevant to the issues of the case. 
  4. Depositions, which are oral interviews of parties and/or witnesses conducted by the other party, with all of the questions and answers transcribed in full by a court reporter.

Evidentiary Hearings vs. Hearings

The very term "evidentiary hearing" can raise a party's blood pressure. This is especially true if the first time you hear it is when the other attorney summons you to an evidentiary hearing on a family court matter.

Before we get to evidentiary hearings in family court, let's clear up the difference between a hearing and an evidentiary hearing in trial court. Any time the parties or their attorneys appear before the judge to discuss something about the case, it is called a hearing. Presumably, that is because the judge is present to "hear" what each party has to say.

For example, if one party refuses to answer discovery on the grounds that it is overbroad, the other party can write up papers asking the court to force them to answer. Both parties submit papers and the court may schedule a hearing in which both sides argue their positions to the court. In an evidentiary hearing, each party can also present live witness testimony.

Evidentiary Hearings in Family Court

California's Family Code Section 217 provides that at a Family Court hearing, the court shall receive any live, competent testimony that is relevant and within the scope of the hearing and the court may ask questions of the parties.

For many years, live witness testimony was not allowed in family law court. But that changed in 2007 when the California Supreme Court ruled that family law parties, like all other litigants, have a legal right to present live testimony at any hearing before the judge.

What does that mean for you? It means that if you are a party in a family law case in California and some motion is filed with the court, either side can ask the court to permit live testimony – in other words, to make the hearing an evidentiary hearing. The court can only deny the request after considering many factors. If the request is granted, the parties appear, the moving party presents their case and calls their witness, then the other party and the judge both get a change to question the witness.

Family Law Trial Process

An evidentiary hearing in Family Court in California is like a mini-trial, which makes it excellent preparation for trial. If your case doesn't settle, at some point one party is likely to ask the court to set the matter for trial.

A family law trial looks quite a bit like the trials you see on television, except that there are no juries. Family law trials in California are heard and decided by superior court judges. The court makes its decisions by applying the family law rules and laws to the evidence produced.

Each party to the case has their chance to present a case to the judge. Generally the lawyers for the parties start off with a statement of the case, and then each has the right to call witnesses and introduce documents and other evidence. Each party has the right to cross-examine the other’s witnesses. After trial, the court decides the issues and writes an order setting out the court decision.

Representing Yourself in a Family Law Trial

Can you represent yourself in a family law trial in California? You can, but it isn't always advisable. If there are important rights involved – significant money or hotly contested matters like child custody – the other party is likely to have an attorney. Although you have the right to represent yourself, you will be held to the same standard as a lawyer admitted to the California bar. It may be easier for a layperson who represents themselves to present their position in an arbitration or mediation.

Note that some issues, like the property division in a divorce and spousal support entitlement can only be litigated once in California. If you lose, you've lost. Other issues like child custody, child and spousal support amounts and visitation might be modified later if you can show a substantial change of circumstances.

How do you represent yourself in a family court trial? Rules of court are procedures that the court system requires parties to follow when they have a court case. You'll need to review the California Family Law Rules of Court, which will tell you what documents and actions are required at every step in a court case. Different superior courts may have different local rules for family court procedures as well.