Yet Another Reason to Avoid Family Court

While there are certain situations where litigation makes sense, for most people, there are plenty of reasons to stay out of family court. For starters, it is expensive, time-consuming, and emotionally draining. Then, when all is said and done, you end up with a judge's decision that might be very different from what you could have come up with yourself. Now, an article in Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly (subscription required) highlights yet another reason to avoid family court: resolutions take a really, really long time.

Delays in family court are a known problem.

Long delays in receiving decisions from family court judges are nothing new to practitioners who live with it every day. As the article points out, parties might wait up to 9 or 10 months without receiving any update on their case. The problem is so bad that the Massachusetts Probate and Family Court has introduced a Status Inquiry Form (.pdf) that allows parties to request updates in the following situations:

  • It has been over 30 days since a motion or complaint for contempt was taken under advisement.
  • It has been over 60 days since a post-judgment motion was taken under advisement.
  • It has been over 90 days since a motion for summary judgment was taken under advisement.
  • It has been over 5 months since a trial was taken under advisement.

You read that right. 5 months. That's how long you will have to wait after a family court trial before you can submit a form inquiring about its status. Meanwhile, you will be stuck adhering to whatever temporary orders the judge entered during the litigation preceding the trial, even if you asked for something very different at trial. Setting aside the harmful effects of litigation generally, the potential for lasting harm to you, your finances, and your family from having to wait this long is tremendous.

But who will use the form?

Even though the Status Inquiry Form now exists, some are wary to use it. As the Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly article points out, family law attorneys are aware that the Probate & Family Court is underfunded, and expect things to move at "a glacial pace." Even when the timeframe provided for in the form has passed, these lawyers will not want to be perceived as pestering the court — not only because it might hurt how they are perceived in this case, but also in future cases before the same judge. Status Inquiry Forms are anonymous as far as judges are concerned, but with only two parties to a case, it might still be more exposure than some attorneys care to risk. Thus, some attorneys will wait until many months have passed before taking the step of submitting a Status Inquiry Form.

Negotiated agreements are processed much faster!

In contrast, consider what happens with a negotiated agreement, whether it is negotiated through counsel, in a Collaborative process, or with a mediator. The negotiation process can take as much or as little time as the parties are able to manage, after which they need only one hearing before a family court judge to approve the agreement. Assuming the agreement is approved (and any concerns the judge might have can generally be remedied on the spot), you do not have to wait for the judge to reach any further decisions. In Massachusetts, if you are submitting a joint petition for divorce, the judgment of divorce nisi will issue in 30 days from the hearing date, and the divorce will be final another 90 days after that. In other words, your divorce will be final 120 days from the hearing date. That's a huge advantage over the long, uncertain delay you will face following a divorce trial, until the judge issues his or her decision.

Again, there are some situations where litigation is necessary, and court delays will be a necessary inconvenience of following that route. But for the majority of people looking for a quick and effective resolution of their family law concerns, these long delays in receiving judicial decisions are yet another reason to avoid family court whenever possible.