If you know you’re about to be in a fight, hit first.
That advice works well on the playground, in a bar, or just about anywhere else you find yourself. It is especially true in the world of litigation, including divorce, custody and just about every other type of family law.
To understand why being the first to file matters, it is important to understand a little bit about the rules of the game you are in.
Texas family law cases are like all other civil litigation. They are governed by the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure.
Under the Rules of Civil Procedure, the party filing first is called a Plaintiff or Petitioner. The other party is the Defendant or Respondent. In family law cases – divorce, custody, modification, child support, enforcement, etc. – the terms Petitioner and Respondent are used.
The Petitioner gets a tremendous number of advantages, if the case goes to trial. The Petitioner gets to conduct his or her portion of Voir Dire (Jury Selection) first. The petitioner gets to make his or her Opening Statement first. The petitioner gets to put on his or her Case-in-Chief first, and when it comes to Closing Argument, the Petitioner gets to speak both first and last.
These advantages are huge. Why? Think about it. When you were a child and in an argument with a brother, sister, or another child, didn’t you want to get your story out to mom or dad first? Why do people interrupt each other when arguing a point to a third party? Because everyone understands the advantage of trying to convince the arbiter of the logic and correctness of his or her point, before the opponent gets a chance to sway the decision maker.
That’s exactly why the rules are in the Rules of Civil Procedure. They are intended to give an advantage. It is understood that the one going first has an easier time of persuasion. And the Rules give the Petitioner this advantage, because the rules were designed primarily for cases in which the filing party is a Plaintiff, such as a car wreck or breach of contract case.
In those cases, the Plaintiff has the procedural advantages provided by going first, because he or she has the burden of proof.
In many family law cases, however, the parties have essentially the same burden. Both are trying to convince the judge that their proposed division of property is fairer than the other side’s proposed division, and/or they are trying to convince the judge or jury that their proposal for the children is more in the best interest of the children than the other sides proposal.
But what if you don’t plan to go to trial? Most people don’t. The reality is that there is no way of knowing at the beginning of a case whether you will go to trial or not.
There are only two ways to finish the case – settlement or trial. To settle, both people have to agree. If the parties cannot agree, there will have to be a trial.
But what if you absolutely believe that you know there will not be a trial? Unless you are one of the incredibly rare people that have complete agreement from the outset, you will still be negotiating something. In that case, being the one that holds the advantage that would be present if you went to trial gives you an advantage in the negotiation.
Finally, remember that even if you believe that none of this applies to you, the case is going to have to be filed at some point by somebody – assuming that the case is going to happen – so it may as well be you. Nothing about this post should be taken as a comment on how to file. That is a topic for a future post, but as a prelude: be aware that there are very non-threatening and amicable ways to file.
Additionally, nothing in this post should be taken as encouraging any case. As the saying goes, “the two worst days of my life were the day I went to court and lost and the day I went to court and won.” Being in a lawsuit of any kind is an emotionally and financially draining proposition – if you can stay out of litigation, do.
But this post ends as it started – if you know you’re about to be in a fight… And litigation, even if amicable, is a form of fighting.