What to Expect at a Family Law Trial in Texas
In a family law case, the final trial is the pinnacle point of the case. The entire litigation leads to this moment – the moment where you get to share your story with the Judge. If you’ve made it to a final trial, there is clear animosity in your case. There can be many reasons a case makes it to the final trial. Maybe you and the other parent have disagreements about your child, maybe your spouse is a narcissist, or maybe you both want to keep the family home.
If you’ve ever watched a Courtroom drama, take everything you may think you know and throw it out the window. There may be moments of drama and intense emotions, but you will never see a surprise witness walk through the courtroom doors and scream, “It was you!!”
It’s important to note that most family law trials are bench trials. That means that your case will be heard by a Judge or an Associate Judge. Your case will not be a jury trial unless one party specifically asks for one.
On This Page:
- Family Law Trial Process
- Direct, Cross and Objection Examples
If you have question about your case, contact Hunt Law Firm today to speak with an attorney.
All family law trials – whether a divorce, modification, custody suit, support or other family law issue – follow the same structure and set up.
Before the trial begins, the attorneys will take care of any “housekeeping” matters they may have. Since attorneys exchange their exhibits before trial, they may want to “stipulate” to the exhibits before trial. This means that the attorneys will agree to some exhibits coming into the trial. The reason attorneys do this is to speed up the case and not spend time laying the foundation for entering documents into evidence. Some attorneys, however, choose not to stipulate to exhibits. It’s not a requirement, but sometimes seen as a courtesy to the Court.
There may also be issues that the parties agreed on to prior to coming to trial. For example, a divorce case has two issues – children’s issues and property issues. If you and your spouse agree to issues regarding your children, then you can just have a trial about property issues (or vice versa). When parties have agreements, the attorneys read those agreements into the record before the trial begins. The record is a transcript of the entire hearing. It is important to remember that the Court Reporter will be transcribing everything that is said. As a helpful tip, remember to speak slow and not talk over anyone.
Once all pretrial and housekeeping matters have been taken care of, then the Judge will ask for opening statements.
An opening statement is when both attorneys preview their case to the Judge. The attorney may provide facts to the Judge about what the evidence and testimony will show. Most opening statements are short and sweet. The Petitioner’s attorney gets to go first followed by the Respondent’s attorney. The Petitioner is the person who first brought the lawsuit. They are the person that first filed for divorce or for custody. The Respondent is the Other Party. After opening statements are given, the meat of the trial begins.
The first person to get the case is the Petitioner. The attorney will call the first witness to the witness stand. The first witness can be the Petitioner, the Respondent (the Other Party), or a third-party witness. When a witness is called to the witness stand, they will be questioned by the attorneys.
When your attorney is questioning you or the witnesses testifying on your behalf, the attorney will be taking a Direct Examination. A Direct Examination means that your attorney will ask open ended questions. The questions will usually begin with the 5 W’s – who, what, when, where, or why (and of course 1 H – how). This will allow the witness to tell the story in their own words to the Judge.
After the attorney finishes the direct examination, the other attorney (the Respondent’s attorney) will get to ask questions of that witness. This is called a Cross Examination. A Cross Examination means that the other attorney is going to ask “yes or no” questions. Unlike the Direct Examination, the other attorney will tell the story during the cross examination. It is almost inevitable that you (or your witnesses) are not going to like the Cross Examination questions. The other attorney is going to try and get you to answer “yes” or “no” to questions that you are not going to like. The hardest part of the entire trial will be your Cross Examination. Just know that once the other attorney finishes, your attorney will get to ask questions to clarify what you had to admit to on the stand. You will get a chance to rehabilitate yourself so don’t panic if you feel that it is not going your way on Cross Examination.
During the questioning, the other attorney may shout “objection”! That means that the other attorney had a problem with the form of the question. It is not your job to know what the objections are or what they mean. That is your attorney’s job! You just want to make sure that when you are on the witness stand and hear the word “Objection!” that you stop talking. Let the attorneys speak. Then you will be directed by the Judge to either answer the question or the attorney will ask you another question.
In the section below titled, Direct, Cross and Objection Examples, you can see examples of direct and cross examination as well as objections.
Once the Petitioner calls all their witnesses to the stand, they rest. Then it is the Respondent’s turn to present their case. At this point, the other party (the Respondent) gets to call his or her witnesses to the stand, including the Petitioner and Respondent. The Respondent’s case will follow the same format. The attorney for the Respondent will ask Direct Examination questions of the client and the supporting witnesses. Now the Petitioner’s attorney will get to Cross Examine the Respondent and witnesses. After the Respondent finishes presenting his or her case, then they will rest. At that time, the case will procced to closing arguments.
By this point, both sides have said everything that they wanted and desired to share in trial. There will be no more witnesses – now it’s the attorney’s time to argue the case to the Judge. The attorneys will bring up all the evidence that was heard and argue to the Judge what they are asking for and why. The Petitioner’s attorney will get to go first, followed by the Respondent’s attorney. If allowed, once the Respondent’s attorney finishes arguing, the Petitioner’s attorney may be allowed a short rebuttal. This, however, is not often granted.
Once closing arguments have concluded, the case is done. All the parties and attorneys can let out a huge sigh of relief that it is over. Now the case rests in the hands of the Judge. The Judge may render a verdict immediately. That means that the Judge will tell you what he/she has decided. In most cases, however, the Judge will take the case under advisement. That means that the Judge needs time to consider all the evidence and testimony that was presented. If this happens, it may be a few days or weeks until you know what the Judge decides. The Judge may call the parties back to the Courtroom or on Zoom to share the verdict or the Judge may send a letter, email or docket note to the attorneys.
Below is an example of a Direct Examination and then a Cross Examination:
Direct Examination of Husband
Attorney: What happened on February 25, 2023?
Witness: My wife and I got into an argument.
Attorney: Where were you at when this happened?
Witness: We were at our house.
Attorney: What were the two of you fighting about?
Witness: I asked her for a divorce, and she was upset. That was all that I said – that I wanted a divorce. I didn’t need to give her a reason.
Cross Examination of Husband
Attorney: You stated earlier that you had just asked your wife for a divorce, correct?
Attorney: And that nothing else was said?
Attorney: Sir, isn’t it true that you asked your wife for a divorce because you got another woman pregnant?
It is incredibly important to listen to the question that is being asked. Don’t try and guess how the attorney – either attorney for that matter – wants you to answer. If you are being asked questions and don’t answer the question asked, the attorney may say “Objection! Non-responsive.” That means the question that was asked was not answered.
Let’s break down an example of this. Below is a transcript where you will see, the statement “That’s not true” does not answer the question which is why there was an objection.
Attorney: You stole his phone, correct?
Witness: That’s not true.
Attorney: Objection! Non-responsive.
Judge: Sustained. Witness, please answer the question.
Attorney: You stole his phone, correct?
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