Family Court Witness Guidelines

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 What Is Family Court?

Family courts handle disputes that arise in relation to family issues such as divorce or child custody. Family courts may operate differently depending on the state.

What Types of Claims Are Processed in Family Court?

Although it may vary, in general, the types of claims family courts handle include:

  • Marriages and civil unions: The eligibility to marry differs in each state;
  • Same-sex marriage is legalized through federal law, so the process for same-sex marriage is identical to heterosexual marriage;
  • Divorce or dissolution of marriage: These involve couples ending their marriages;
    • Issues regarding custody, division of property, and finances are often decided during these proceedings;
  • Child custody and visitation: Courts will determine legal and physical custody based on the best interests of the child standard as well as various other factors that differ by state;
  • Child support: This is determined by two factors, physical custody and the parent’s income;
    • If one of the parents has the sole physical custody, then child support is set as a percentage of the income of the noncustodial parent;
    • Typically, most states require child support till the child turns 18;
  • Spousal support and alimony: This is the financial obligation one spouse owes to the other after the marriage is terminated;
    • Alimony can be paid temporary or permanent basis and may be one lump sum or monthly payments;
    • Alimony is not automatic, and several factors are considered, such as:
    • The duration of the marriage;
    • The ability to pay; and
    • The conduct of the parties;
  • Adoption: There are different types of adoptions that individuals can pursue; and
  • Name change: These petitions typically require a notice of publication;
    • If the petitioner is a minor, there are additional requirements for consent.

Who Can Serve as a Witness in Family Law Cases?

As noted above, there are many issues governed by family law, such as divorce and child custody. In addition, paternity and emancipation are other issues that are handled in family law courts.

On occasion, a family law case will require a witness, for example, if a case involves domestic abuse. A witness can provide key points of information that support a party’s claims or legal arguments.

For example, in a domestic abuse case, a witness’s testimony may be what is needed in order to support a victim’s claim that the abuse actually occurred. Every state has its own set of rules about who is permitted to serve as a witness in a family law case.

In general, the following individuals may act as witnesses in family court:

  • The victims themselves;
  • Defendants testifying on their own behalf;
  • Any individual who wishes to testify on behalf of the plaintiff;
  • An impartial eyewitness to relevant events that are related to the family law hearing; or
  • Any other individual with information that may be useful in court.

Another situation in which a witness may be needed is during a custody hearing. In a custody hearing, a witness can provide general support for the parent who seeks custody.

A witness can also confirm previously disclosed information related to that parent’s case. In some cases, an expert witness may also be called into family court when necessary.

An expert witness may be used when there is a need for certain testimony that is:

  • Scientific;
  • Technical; or
  • Specialized.

If the testimony of a witness will help the court or jury understand the evidence or resolve a disputed issue, they may be brought in. There is certain information about witnesses that must be obtained and provided to the parties before a trial, including:

  • Their name;
  • Their address; and
  • Their contact information.

Typically, information about potential witnesses must be provided by each side to the other side at least 30 days before the trial date. However, this requirement may vary by state.

What Are Some Witness Guidelines for Family Court?

The contribution a witness makes can often make or break a case. In family court cases, specifically, witness testimony might be the only source of evidence regarding a particular issue.

This is different from criminal cases, where the prosecution can collect large amounts of evidence. Because witnesses have such a great responsibility in family court cases, there are several things they should keep in mind, including:

  • Before testifying, a witness should review the situation, incident, or event in question so they can refresh their memory;
  • It is imperative that the witness always be truthful when responding to questioning and avoids inserting their own opinion;
  • The witness should avoid making any unnecessary or distracting:
    • comments;
    • movements; or
    • mannerisms;
  • A witness should avoid providing more information than is asked of them;
  • The witness should go over vital facts of the case in detail while avoiding memorized or rehearsed responses;
    • If the witness is perceived to be untrustworthy or unreliable, it may have a negative impact on their testimony;
  • Witnesses should also not look to their attorney for cues or coaching;
  • The witness should listen carefully to questioning in order to provide a truthful and accurate response, as opposed to responding reflexively and potentially incorrectly;
  • If the judge or an attorney raises an objection, it is important that the witness stops speaking and waits for the objection to be resolved before proceeding with their testimony; and
  • The witness should practice good courtroom etiquette and should always be polite.

Some examples of good courtroom etiquette include:

  • Dress appropriately, specifically in formal business attire, if possible;
  • Address the judge as “your honor” when they have to address the judge; and
  • Do not bring any food, drinks, or any noise-producing electronics into the courtroom.

Most importantly, a witness should remain as calm and relaxed as they possibly can during the process, as their testimony may influence the outcome of the case. A witness should do their best to appear reliable and to provide accurate and truthful testimony and evidence.

What Else Should I Know About Family Court Witnesses?

It is important to be aware that the evidence that is provided by a witness will not always be admissible. Generally, a court will use the following as guidelines to determine if the provided evidence should be admitted or excluded:

  • Whether the evidence is actually helpful to the judge or jury;
  • Whether the witness is qualified to be providing evidence;
  • Whether the provided testimony is based on sufficient facts or data;
  • If the testimony has been provided as a result of reliable methods or principles; and
  • If the witness reliably applied the facts of the case.

The court may exclude evidence that would only serve to confuse the jury. In addition, the court may exclude evidence that would unfairly prejudice a party or that would be too time-consuming to present to a jury.

Do I Need an Attorney for Help with Family Court Witness Issues?

The guidelines in place for witnesses who appear in family court cases may vary by jurisdiction or state. Because of this, it may be helpful to consult with a family lawyer to ensure you understand the guidelines in your area.

If you are going to be a witness, you typically do not have to hire an attorney. The attorney who was hired by the side you are testifying for will typically help you prepare for your testimony.

This means they will likely prepare you before you testify at the hearing or trial.


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