Utah Divorce: The Pretrial Conference


Most people who go through the Utah divorce process have never been through a divorce before. In addition to the other emotions divorce stirs up, not knowing what to expect can be anxiety-provoking. Understanding what is involved in the legal process, especially in the court hearings you may need to participate in, can be reassuring and can help you to have a better outcome.

As you probably know, a Utah divorce case begins with one spouse filing a Petition for Divorce and other required documents and ensuring that the other spouse is served with those papers. A divorce case ends either after settlement is reached or a trial is held, after which a dissolution of marriage is granted. In between, you will probably have two pretrial conferences. What is a pretrial conference, and how do you need to prepare for it?

What Happens at a Pretrial Conference?

A lot can change after a divorce is filed. Spouses who initially expected to resolve their issues amicably may have discovered areas of disagreement. Spouses who were too angry to communicate at the outset of the divorce may have found a way to work out some of their differences. The discovery process may have uncovered new information in the case.

The function of the pretrial conference is to bring the court up to speed on any developments in the case since the filing of the petition and answer. As mentioned above, there are typically two pretrial conferences. The first is in front of a commissioner, and the second is before a judge. (Some smaller Utah counties may not have commissioners).

Let’s take a moment to discuss the difference between commissioners and judges. While a commissioner hears many types of family law disputes, he or she does not have the decision-making authority of a judge. Do not make the mistake of thinking that means a commissioner is an unimportant figure! Commissioners hear disputes and make recommendations to judges, and judges rely heavily on those recommendations.

Your attorney understands the importance of a pretrial conference before a commissioner and will work with you beforehand to ensure you are ready. In reality, though, your attorney will do most of the talking at the pretrial conference. The object of the first pretrial conference is to identify all issues in the case that remain unresolved and to issue a pretrial order.

The pretrial order lists the issues that the court will need to consider and rule on at a trial. If a particular issue is not identified on the pretrial order, you will not be permitted to present evidence on that issue at trial. For this reason, you and your divorce attorney will need to discuss all remaining areas of dispute to make sure nothing important is left out of the pretrial order.

What is a Judicial Settlement Conference?

In some cases, divorcing couples reach agreement on outstanding issues by the time of the pretrial conference or shortly thereafter. If you have not reached agreement, your case will be scheduled for a second pretrial conference, before the assigned judge in your case. The final issues for trial will be set forth for trial and the judge may require to participate in what is known as a judicial settlement conference. Despite the fact that this conference is before a judge, it will not be before the judge in your case.

The purpose of a judicial settlement conference is to attempt to resolve any outstanding issues in the divorce and avoid a trial in the case. By having a judge other than your assigned judge oversee this conference, your assigned judge will not be prejudiced by what takes place at the settlement conference and will be able to be impartial at trial. The judicial settlement conference is much like mediation, but with a judge rather than a mediator facilitating. Unlike private mediation, there is no charge for this service.

By this point in the process, you may be feeling as if there is no hope of settlement, and may be eager to just get on with a trial. That is understandable. That said, there is great value to a judicial settlement conference, even if you don’t reach settlement.

The judge who facilitates your settlement conference is a colleague of the judge who will oversee your trial. He or she will not tell you how your judge would rule on a particular aspect of your dispute. But if you pay attention, you can probably get an idea how the judge at your settlement conference feels about the strength of your position, and what that judge thinks your own judge might do. That may help you decide if you want to stand your ground or concede a bit on a certain issue. Some couples who don’t reach settlement at this second pretrial conference manage to reach agreement afterward with the insights gained from the conference.

As with the first pretrial conference, your divorce attorney will help you understand exactly what to anticipate and how to prepare. With our office located in Salt Lake City, we invite you to contact Barton Wood to schedule a consultation if you have further questions about pretrial conferences or other Utah divorce procedures.