In South Carolina Family Courts, all divorce and child custody cases are required to be resolved within a 365-Day window, or at least have a trial date set by the 365th day after the original filing date. This “365 Date” controls a lot of case strategy sessions throughout the life of a case when it’s handled by the attorneys involved. However, sometimes a case can get delayed and the Family Court or one of the attorneys will request what’s called a “Pre-Trial” hearing or a “Pre-Trial” status conference to attempt to get things back on track. A common question we are asked by our clients is, “What’s going to happen at this pre-trial hearing?” It’s a fair question, especially since the word “hearing” can have a lot of baggage added to it after attending a contested Temporary or other Motion hearing through the course of a case.
During the months leading up to a Pre-Trial hearing, there’s likely been a lot going on in your family court case. Depending on the type of case you have, your attorney may have been gathering witness statements and evidence to review your case strengths and weaknesses while also helping you to adjust to new schedules and routines as dictated by the Temporary Order. Your attorney may have hired experts to help determine the value of certain assets and the future impact of debts from the marriage. You may have had to enter an agreement to sell some marital property to afford the cost of supporting two households. Or you and/or your spouse may have had to undergo certain psychological testing and evaluations to help sort out the child custody issues in your case. There have probably been discovery requests going back and forth between the attorneys as they try to find evidence that you may not have in your possession. Your case may or may not be scheduled for mediation yet.
Needless to say, it’s a lot to keep up with. And that’s exactly why a Pre-Trial hearing is typically scheduled. It’s a short hearing, usually 15-20 minutes, which allows the attorneys, the parties, the Judge, along with any other necessary participants (i.e., the Guardian ad Litem) to come together and discuss the status of all outstanding trial preparation issues. The Judge will typically ask one or both attorneys to present the “status” of the case and outline any issues which need court-ordered deadlines so that the case can move forward. If discovery hasn’t been completed by one or both sides, the Judge will issue a final deadline for all discovery to be due. If mediation hasn’t been scheduled yet, the Judge will give the attorneys a deadline for doing so to avoid the case from being “administratively dismissed1” from the docket. The Judge will also ask the attorneys to estimate the number of witnesses and days of trial they will need if mediation is unsuccessful in order to have the docket clerk reserve time for a trial on the court’s calendar (i.e., docket).
At the end of the hearing, all parties are able to leave the Courtroom with a set schedule for all future case planning. Many of our clients tell us they like these hearings since they can leave the courthouse with the “light at the end of the tunnel” in sight. Family Court litigation can be a long and expensive process, so having a short order from a family court judge detailing everyone’s responsibilities, obligations, and firm dates and deadlines in place for how the case will be resolved can feel like a “win” for many. It’s important to get a copy of this Order for your own records so that you can work closely with your attorney’s office to make sure you meet any deadlines or requirements necessary to successfully resolve your case.
1. A case that is administratively dismissed is one which has not met the deadlines as outlined by the 365-Day limitations or other court-ordered deadlines set by the Chief Administrative Judge of the Family Court. The Clerk of Court “dismisses” the case and if the parties wish to proceed with the matter, they typically must file a brand new action in the Family Court to begin the litigation process anew.