10. Case Management Conference – What is the first hearing in divorce court?

When a petition under the Family Law Act is filed in San Diego County, the matter will be assigned to a specific judge, and the petitioner will receive a “Notice of Case Assignment” after filing the petition (San Diego Local Rules, Rule 5.2.1). Also at the time of filing a petition, the court will schedule a Family Resolution Conference (“FRC”) for the purpose of allowing the court to manage the case from inception to final resolution (San Diego Local Rules, Rule 5.2.2; Cal. Rules of Court, Rule 5.83).

A date and time for the FRC will be provided to the petitioner in a “Notice of Hearing” provided to petitioner at the time of filing the petition. The Notice of Case Assignment and Notice of Hearing must be served on respondent along with the summons, petition, and supporting documents. If no Request for Order or Ex Parte application is filed by either party, the FRC will be the first court appearance. The FRC may be continued for good cause. The San Diego Local Rules encourage alternate means of dispute resolution such as private arbitration or mediation (San Diego Local Rules, Rule 5.2.3).

At the FRC, the parties and their attorneys may address issues such as the status of discovery (discussed in paragraph 11 below), whether or not the parties agree on one or more issues, and if the parties anticipate there being a trial in the matter. The court will then set a time frame for either resolution of the matter or a trial. The court may choose to schedule a Mandatory Settlement Conference (“MSC”) which the parties and their attorneys must attend. Each party must prepare an MSC brief outlining all the issues the parties either agree or disagree upon (Cal. Rules of Court, Rule 5.394).

For instance, Pedro and Rita were married for five years and have one minor child age three. Pedro files and serves a petition for dissolution of marriage on Rita, and Rita files a response. The parties recognize that they have little in the way of assets, and the central issue is the custody arrangement and child support. Rita files a Request for Order (“RFO”) regarding child custody and support. After mandatory child custody mediation and at a hearing on the RFO, the court orders a shared custody arrangement with joint legal and physical custody to the parties. The judge points out that with a child this young, there should be frequent contact with both parents absent bad conduct by one of the parents. The court orders the minor child to be with Pedro on two days, then with Rita three days, then back to Pedro for two days. The following week, the schedule flips to Rita for two days, Pedro for three days, then Rita for two days. This alternates and is called a “2-3-2” parenting schedule. A very minimal amount of child support is also ordered given the parties have almost the same earnings and share the child equally.

Three months later, the parties appear at the FRC. The court asks if the parenting schedule is working and they agree that the 2-3-2 plan is working and the child is doing well seeing both parents so frequently. The court suggests that if there are no more disputes, that they re-write the order from the RFO hearing as a judgment including provisions for division of the personal property and debts. Rita asks the important question about what happens when the child starts school in two years. The judge points out that if the parenting time schedule isn’t working at some point, the parties can come back even after the judgment is final and seek a modification upon a showing of a significant change of circumstances (Cal. Fam. Code § 3022; Montenegro v. Diaz (2001) 26 Cal.4th 249).

When contemplating a divorce, the parties should consider resolution of the matter based upon their current circumstances because just as Pedro and Rita experienced, orders can generally be modified to fit changes in the parties’ circumstances.