Family law typically covers such legal areas as divorce, divorce mediation, separation agreements, property distribution, child custody, alimony, child support, and prenuptial agreements. Even under the best of circumstances, these are charged issues and the parties can sometimes react very strongly, particularly when testifying in a courtroom.
Judges are people like you and me. They generally respond well to honesty, politeness, and civility, and react negatively to falsehoods and rudeness. Following is a list of things to keep in mind if you are testifying on a family law matter in the courtroom before a judge and/or a jury.
What You Should Say to a Judge in Family Court
It’s important always to be respectful of the judge. He or she is entitled to deference simply by the position they hold, even if you disagree with their comments or rulings. This also holds true for other officers of the court with whom you may interact. To start with, greet the judge as “Your Honor,” never as “Judge Smith” or “Mrs. Smith.” When you are asked a question by the judge, don’t nod your head “yes” or “no.” Answer “Yes, your honor,” or “No, your honor.” Showing respect for the judge and other officers of the court will go a long way toward showing the judge that you recognize the gravity of the situation and that you are also entitled to respect.
If you’re in a position to have to speak to someone other than the judge or your lawyer, such as the bailiff or the clerk of the court, address them respectfully as “Sir” or “Ma’am.”
Always speak the truth. You will be sworn in, and you are under oath when you give your testimony. If you lie under oath, or otherwise give answers that are less than fully truthful, you can be “impeached” by the opposing side. To be “impeached” in a court setting means that your truthfulness and integrity have been attacked. If proven, this will undermine your integrity and testimony before the judge and/or jury.
Speak in your own words. It’s important to be real. If you’ve memorized your response, or if it’s too heavily rehearsed, it’s likely you won’t sound authentic and the judge may find your testimony not credible. You should be familiar enough with your own case that you can speak knowledgeably without sounding overly practiced.
What You Shouldn’t Say to a Judge in Family Court
Don’t speak to the judge unless you are spoken to. Many judges have little tolerance for being interrupted or having the plaintiff or defendant raise issues without having been asked. Most judges have a process for their courtroom and cases, so be respectful and only speak when you are asked to.
Don’t volunteer information that is not specifically asked for by the judge, the opposing attorney or your own attorney. Respond to the questions asked, but don’t offer additional information.
Stay to the facts in your testimony and what you know or observed. In most cases, it’s best not to offer opinions or conclusions unless specifically asked.
Be careful about your language. Don’t use vulgar or obscene words or phrases. Similarly, don’t say anything in the heat of the moment and speak in anger or hostility. It’s important to maintain decorum in the courtroom, and negative, aggressive behavior will reflect poorly on you and likely hurt your case.
Be careful about saying anything that will be difficult to amend later. If an answer to a question is not definitive, be sure to express that uncertainty clearly in your testimony. For example, if you’re asked whether you engaged in certain behavior during your marriage, and you may have, say “I may have” or “It’s possible, I don’t clearly remember,” rather than “No.” The caveat here, though, is to always be truthful.
Don’t exaggerate. It’s important to tell the truth as best as you know or remember it. If necessary, take time to reflect and formulate the response so that it’s as truthful as possible.
While it’s often necessary to make critical comments about your spouse or another family member in a family law matter, explain the situation rather than using derogatory terms. For example, rather than saying your spouse is a “bad” parent, explain the facts. To illustrate, you could say that he or she rarely comes home before the children’s bedtimes or doesn’t help with housework or homework.
Other Things to Be Aware of During a Family Law Proceeding
There are other general courtroom rules you should follow related to your family law matter:
- Dress properly for the occasion. Again, this is a matter of showing respect for the court. For men, proper courtroom attire generally means wearing your best shirt (and tie, if you have one) and pants and for women, interview-appropriate clothing.
- Don’t refuse to cooperate with the court. If they need documents or statements from you, in consultation with your attorney, make sure you provide these in a timely matter.
- Don’t talk about your testimony to \others outside of the courtroom. Even if you’re not under a confidentiality order, it’s best to keep matters to yourself and close family members until they’ve been adjudicated.
Speak to a Skilled Bethesda Family Law Attorney Today to Discuss Your Options
Litigating or mediating family law issues is often upsetting and emotionally draining. Whether you’re drafting a prenuptial agreement with your fiance, fighting for custody of your child, arguing about alimony payments, or trying to figure out marital property distribution, the legal process is difficult under the best of circumstances. We can make the process more constructive, with less stress and fewer negative consequences. We’re known for our personal attention and compassion. Brandon Bernstein, a Bethesda family law attorney, has been recognized as a Rising Star in Maryland and a Maryland Super Lawyer. Call our offices at 240-395-1418 if we can be of service to you.