How to Represent Yourself in Divorce: Maricopa Family Court

Part 3: RMC, ERC, ADR, Return Hearing, Status Conference

This blog is part of a larger series on “how to represent yourself in divorce” or family court. Some things are specific to Maricopa county, but many are applicable to all family law cases in Arizona.

In Part 1, we discuss what to do prior to filing your family court action, determining your objectives and strategy, how to draft your initial pleadings, how to respond, and whether to request a motion for temporary orders.

In Part 2, we walked you through how to represent yourself in Default Proceedings and get what you need through Discovery.

In Part 3, we cover the RMC, ERC, ADR, Return Hearings and Status Conferences.

1. Resolution Management Conference (RMC):

A resolution management conference (RMC) is scheduled for most initially filed family court cases (either a divorce or an initial action for custody). An RMC is a 30-minute hearing in front of your assigned judge for him or her to review your RMC statements, determine if there are any agreements, and come up with a plan for moving forward with your case.

Prior to the RMC, both parties are required to file resolution statements. Resolution statements are a breakdown of all of your positions on outstanding issues in your case. You are supposed to identify for the judge what the outstanding issues are and how you would like them to be resolved, specifically. For example, the judge will want to know exactly what parenting plan you are proposing, or, if you are not yet proposing a parenting plan, why not.

The judge will review the statements of both parties and see if there are any agreements between the parties. If there are agreements on any issues, the Judge will likely “swear you in” and put your agreements on the record in a binding Rule 69 agreement. These issues are forever “off the table.” If you both agree to a parenting plan or spousal maintenance amount, or who gets which cars, then you’ll be held to that agreement now and required to come up with a plan for the remainder of the issues.

After determining what, if anything, you agree on, the judge will ask how you propose the remaining issues should be determined. Here, the court may send you to a parenting conference, or to ADR (settlement conference), or may appoint a Court Appointed Advisor, Guardian Ad Litem, or for a full blown custody evaluation. The court may set a final hearing date, or may set a status conference for a week or so following an ADR. The court may set a temporary orders evidentiary hearing if necessary. Sometimes, judges will even enter temporary orders, although they really shouldn’t enter any orders that are not agreed to by both parties.

2. Early Resolution Conference (ERC):

If you are not ordered to attend an RMC, you may be ordered to attend an ERC. An ERC is most often set when both parties are unrepresented. In this case, you are ordered to appear at conciliation services and a third party mediator, usually an attorney, presides over your ERC.

You are not in a court room but instead in a small room in the courthouse with the presider (mediating party) and the opposing party. Here, the presider will walk through the issues, one at a time, to see if you are your ex can come to any agreements. These sessions are usually set for three hours as opposed to a half hour ERC. Come prepared for a working session where you really dive into the issues to see what can be accomplished.

3. ADR (Alternative Dispute Resolution) or Judicial Settlement Conference

If you are headed into family court, chances are that you will be ordered to attend some sort of ADR (alternative dispute resolution). In fact, ADR is so common, it’s not really an alternative any more. Instead, it could be called pre-litigation dispute resolution.

Most often, these are ordered when attorneys represent both sides, but if you’re self-representing, it could still be ordered or you may want to request an ADR. If you are assigned an ADR you can expect to be assigned a hearing date (typically with a Judge Pro Tem). The acting judge is not the judge assigned to your case, but a third party neutral. Your conference can take place at the courthouse, at a judge’s office (if you have another attorney acting as a Judge Pro Tem), or at conciliation services.

Most likely you will be assigned to write a confidential settlement conference memorandum that must be submitted to the judge pro tem in advance of the conference. This is NOT shared or disclosed to the opposing party. The settlement conference memorandum should be treated like your pretrial statement (which comes later); it includes not only your positions but also the legal arguments justifying your position and references to your evidence. On the day of the settlement conference you will bring your exhibits and your memorandum and be ready to argue your case. This is an opportunity for you to have a practice run at trying your case and get feedback from a professional on how you are doing and the strength of your case.

When you get to the conference, you will most likely begin with the judge, the opposing attorney and the opposing party all in one room. Typically, the judge explains the grounds rules. The purpose of the meeting is to see what issues can be settled and really drill down within the case to determine the strength of each party’s position. Then the parties’ are separated into different rooms and the negotiations begin. The judge will have reviewed your memorandum and will ask questions anything that is unclear. The judge will likely use their experience and opinions to let each side know where their strengths and weaknesses are. You will have the ability to state your position and convey facts to the judge in an informal setting. Then, the judge will visit the other side to gather their positions and see if an offer can be made.

The judge may go back and forth many times in an attempt to reach agreement and drill down the arguments. This can be a very lengthy process and it typically involves a great deal of waiting. However, they are typically very successful at helping the parties to settle some, if not all, of the pending issues. Even if no agreements are reached, you have had the opportunity to present your case to a judge, and you have likely received valuable feedback. This will no doubt assist in moving forward throughout the process. Also, valuable seeds have been planted in the minds of the parties. Even if no settlements are reached on that day, you may find it easier to settle your case moving forward.

4. Return Hearing/Status Conference

A return hearing is typically set “post decree” (in modification or enforcement actions) in lieu of a temporary orders hearing or RMC. Most often the minute entries setting the return hearing say that “evidence may be taken.” This means you should be prepared to offer testimony and exhibits about the outstanding issues. Have your exhibits prepared and have extra copies available for the opposing party and judge. I recommend disclosing your potential exhibits in advance. With that being said, evidence may not be taken. The judge may simply use the return hearing to figure out what the outstanding issues are and plan a way ahead. A Parenting Coordinator or Special Master may be appointed. The family court often utilizes third parties to help them untangle issues.

A status conference is usually scheduled following an event like a mediation or a certain period of time if the parties have requested an extension, prior to the court dismissing a case.

Final Thoughts

With all of the available pre-trial conferences in family court it can be confusing to know which one means what. I hope this guide gives you a good idea of what to expect prior to your scheduled pre-trial hearing.

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Read Part 4 of this series, we discuss Negotiations, Trial Preparation and Trial Presentation.