Before you get to trial, you will attend a settlement conference at the court. Most contested cases settle at the settlement conference. Very few cases actually proceed to trial. Going to trial is just too expensive and time consuming.
As previously mentioned, there are 58 counties in California and each county is like a mini kingdom with its own unique local rules and those local rules constantly change. How you get a settlement conference scheduled, what documents you need to file with the court before the settlement conference takes place, and what happens at the settlement conference is going to vary dramatically from county to county.
The local rules for your county are likely going to be available on-line from the court’s website. You can pull up the local rules and read what you need to do in connection with settlement conferences for your county. You can meet with the family law Court Facilitator at the court house and ask about
You may want to consider paying an experienced family law lawyer in your area for a half hour of his or her time and have them explain to you the local rules and procedures for settlement conferences. The following is general, basic information, that will apply to many counties.
Courts will not schedule a settlement conference until both parties have completed and exchanged their Preliminary Declarations of Disclosure. The case is not going to be ready to settle if both parties have not yet exchanged their Preliminary Declarations of Disclosure. As previously discussed, after you have completed and exchanged your Preliminary Declaration of Disclosures, you are required to file with the court your, “Declaration Regarding Service Of Declaration Of Disclosure And Income And Expense Declaration” (FL-141). Filing this form is how the court knows you have both exchanged your Preliminary Declaration of Disclosure documents and are ready for a settlement conference. You won’t be able to get a settlement conference scheduled with the court until both you and your spouse have filed your FL-141 with the court clerk.
Courts typically will not automatically issue a settlement conference date just because both parties have filed their FL-141 forms. You are likely going to need to take some action (file a local court form) to get the settlement conference scheduled. These local court forms go by different names (i.e., “Request For Settlement Conference”; “At-Issue Memorandum”; etc.).
Some courts may require you to participate in a hearing before they schedule the settlement conference. These pre-settlement conference hearings go by different names. Some are called Case Management Conferences and some are called “Pre-Trial Conferences”. The purpose of these pre-settlement conference hearings is to make sure the case is really in a position to settle. Has all discovery been completed? Is there something that still needs to be done before a settlement can be negotiated, such as getting an appraisal or having an expert witness issue a written report regarding some disputed issue?
After you get a settlement conference date from the court, you will likely receive instructions from the court about what documents are required to be filed with the court and provided to the other party prior to the settlement conference. If you do not receive instructions from the court, you will need to read the local court rules. Typically, you will need to file a “Settlement Conference Statement” with the court before the settlement conference. The contents of the Settlement Conference Statement will be determined by local court rules, but essentially, a Settlement Conference Statement is a pleading that tells the court what agreements the parties have been able to make, what issues are still in dispute, and what your settlement position is with respect to each disputed issue. Settlement Conference Statements are typically typed on 28-line pleading paper, with a caption. It is common to require Settlement Conference Statements to be filed with the court and served on the other party at least 2 weeks before the settlement conference.
We offer, as an option for $20, a Settlement Conference Statement template. The template provides the framework for a typical Settlement Conference Statement and includes instructions on what to write. You will need to type over the entries on the template for your specific case (i.e., type in the names of the parties; your case number; etc.). You will need to add information describing the disputed issues involved in your case and describe your settlement position.
If you wish to purchase the Settlement Conference Statement template, click the click the “Templates” button on the navigation bar and then click on “Settlement Conference Statement”. What happens at the settlement conference hearing, in terms of procedure, will also vary from county to county. Typically, when both parties have lawyers, the lawyers meet with the settlement conference judge in the judge’s chambers to discuss settlement. The judge will have previously read the parties’ Settlement Conference Statements and the judge will give an indication to the lawyers as to how the disputed issues will likely be decided by the judge if the matter were to go to trial. The lawyers then meet with their clients, tell the clients what the judge said, and the case will oftentimes settle along the lines suggested by the settlement conference judge.
Most courts do not allow parties that are not represented by lawyers to go into a judge’s chambers to discuss settlement. If one or both parties do not have a lawyer, you can expect any settlement discussions with the judge to take place in the courtroom, with the bailiff present. If both parties are in pro per, some courts don’t have you meet with a judge at the settlement conference. Instead, you will meet with an employee of the court that is not a judge but is knowledgeable about the law or you may meet with a local family law lawyer that has volunteered his or her time to help conduct a settlement conference with pro pers.
At the settlement conference, you will have the opportunity to get some input from an independent party (i.e., judge, court staff, or volunteer attorney) regarding the disputed issues. In addition, the settlement conference will be an opportunity to meet with your spouse and attempt to negotiate a settlement of your case. If you reach a settlement, you will inform the court that you have reached a settlement. If the court will permit you to do so, recite the terms of the settlement “on the record” (i.e., in front of the judge with a court reporter taking down every word). If the court will not permit a recital of the settlement “on the record”, write up a summary of the settlement points. The court may have a stipulation form you can use to write up a summary of the settlement.
After you write up the summary, both you and your spouse should date and sign the summary. Make a copy of the summary at the court so you both leave with a copy. You will then need to prepare your Judgment of Dissolution (FL-180) and all the paperwork that goes along with the judgment. In order to understand how to draft your Judgment of Dissolution (FL-180), you should review the “Judgment” section of this website.
If you are unable to reach a settlement at the settlement conference, the court will give likely you a trial date. It is possible the court will schedule a second settlement conference.