Colorado Divorce Basics: Who Decides My Case
No Legal Advice Intended: This information is not intended, and should not be taken, as legal advice on any particular set of facts or circumstances. You should contact an attorney for advice on specific legal problems.
Short answer: Judges decide disputed issues in domestic relations cases, but the vast majority of domestic relations cases are decided by the parties themselves negotiating and reaching agreement.
Judges, Not Juries
The Judge is the straightforward answer to this question if it’s taken to mean “who makes Court Ordered decisions in my case if disputed issues are heard at a hearing.” Domestic relations cases are heard only by a judge in Colorado, not by juries. Domestic relations cases include dissolution of marriage (divorce) and allocation of parental responsibilities cases (child custody between unmarried parents), child support, and parenting disputes between parents after they have obtained an initial order (post-decree domestic relations cases). Colorado trial courts include both district court judges and district court magistrates. Magistrates have more limited authority than district court judges, but each have the authority to hear at least portions of domestic relations cases. There are rules that may allow a party to “opt-out” of a magistrate hearing the final, permanent orders hearing in a dissolution of marriage case.
District Court Judges and District Court Magistrates
However, the varying judicial districts throughout the state (of which there are 22 that may include multiple counties) have varying procedures determining whether your specific issue is assigned to a district court judge or district court magistrate. Currently, there are slightly differing procedures just between the Northern Colorado districts of the 8th(Larimer and Jackson Counties), 19th (Weld County), 20th (Boulder County).
For example, currently in the Eighth Judicial District (Larimer/Jackson) most preliminary matters will be assigned to a single magistrate who handles the case until a permanent orders hearing—meaning the magistrate hears temporary orders hearings. The magistrate then assigns cases for the final permanent orders hearing to a district court judge. Whereas, in the Twentieth Judicial District (Boulder) usually the entire dissolution case is heard by a district court judge and the magistrates hear post-decree matters. In the Nineteenth Judicial District (Weld), your case may be assigned to either a district court judge or magistrate who usually hear the whole case (unless you choose to opt-out of the magistrate’s jurisdiction over permanent orders).
Does being assigned to a district court judge or magistrate make a large difference? No, we do not find that the assignment between the two makes a large difference. It also isn’t worth worrying over, because it’s not something you can choose to change. Your case is assigned to a certain judge and that’s that (though there can be certain situations where you have a choice of which district to file in). There’s no option to change judges except under extreme circumstances that are unlikely to apply.
The biggest difference between judges is their particular familiarity with domestic relations. Some judges have never worked in domestic relations law prior to taking the bench. It’s a rare judge today that is familiar with all areas of the law before they take the bench (criminal, civil, domestic relations, juvenile, probate). Your attorney must be prepared to inform the judge on why your positions are proper under the law and should be granted. A new judge who has not worked in domestic relations may not be aware of the full realm of possibilities available to resolve issues in a case. It is then up to the attorneys to tell them what options to consider, what underlying incentives are at play, and elucidate pitfalls in a seemingly reasonable countervailing proposal by your spouse.
You decide to the extent the agreement is acceptable between you and your spouse
If you interpret the question of “who decides my case” as “who decides whether to settle the disputed issues in the case or address them at hearing,” the answer is: you (to the extent you can agree with your spouse).
This may be surprising since divorce often means you are at odds with your spouse in many ways. However, the vast majority of divorce cases in Colorado settle with no hearing. This is because in most cases the potential court outcome is predictable. The more predictable the scenario, the more likely settlement. The more unique the situation (and more valuable the outcome), the less likely the settlement potential. This is the case because in scenarios attorneys see routinely, we know the likely outcome in court. Though Colorado is an equitable division state, meaning the court does not have to divide marital assets and debts 50/50, judges usually get as close as they can. See our What is Divorce blog. There’s a similar perspective toward parenting time that if parents are fit and capable of 50/50 parenting time then the court will grant it.
A situation where a judge might vary from 50/50 financial division might includes where a spouse has intentionally dissipated (spent or hidden) assets in anticipation of divorce. Situations where a judge might vary from 50/50 parenting time include those where a spouse’s work prevents them from exercising 50/50 time, where a spouse has substance abuse or mental health issues necessitating treatment to avoid harm to the children, where a spouse has not shown a history of exercising equal time with the children (though the courts do consider that divorce is a new chapter of parenting).
In most cases, you know the expected outcome will involve dividing assets, debts, and parenting time near to 50/50 and the expense of continuing to a hearing is not worth the risk. Hearing should be reserved for uncertain, valuable close factual questions. Unfortunately, an obstinate spouse can also force a hearing where they will not accept the likely outcome. Attorneys provide benefits in these scenarios by identifying the likely outcomes and helping preventing certain assets and debts from being included in consideration. It’s important to have an attorney assist in identifying which assets and debts are marital and distinguish separate assets.
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