The Preliminary Conference: What Is It?

A preliminary conference will be, for most, the first, if not the only court appearance in a contested divorce in New York.

I like to think of the preliminary conference as the first opportunity to formally eliminate and identify issues in the case. Once the issues in dispute are identified, the timeline is set for their final resolution at trial.

Like all court appearances in a matrimonial action, the parties and their attorneys must appear in court.  At the conference, the parties sign a binding agreement (a " Preliminary Conference Order") detailing  what issues (marital fault [grounds], equitable distribution, maintenance, child custody, support and visitation)are in dispute.   If, for instance, the grounds for divorce are unresolved, the court will immediately schedule a grounds trial.

If grounds are not in dispute (both parties agree that there will be a divorce upon some ground), the preliminary conference order will address discovery for those issue which are unresolved. For example, the order will provide for the exchange of financial documents and may address the appointment of necessary experts to value property, businesses, professional licenses, degrees and pensions, etc. The order may also address how the experts will be paid.

If there are issues involving children, the court may appoint a law guardian for the children and may also order a forensic examination.

This conference gives judge his first taste of the case. At the conference, the judge will be able to meet and assess the parties and informally judge the merits of the case. The Court will also be able to address any immediate issues like temporary maintenance, child support or anything else that may require the judicial resolution.

As I said at the outset, for many, the preliminary conference will be their only court appearance in the divorce. Many cases are resolved at the preliminary conference. Most contested divorces settle some time after the preliminary conference during the discovery phase of the divorce.

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