When I interview a new client or prepare an existing client for a hearing or trial, I find they usually want assurance of what will happen when we get to court, or some guidance on what a judge would do at trial in evaluating whether or not to settle. Unfortunately, the majority of the issues in Family Law are left to "the sound discretion of the trial judge."
In fact, that is language that is found in a high percentage of appellate court decisions in family law cases precisely because there are many unique situations, and unique personalities - it is the philosophy of many appellate courts that the trial judge is in the best position to fashion a rule to guide the family's life. Unfortunately, this also increases the unpredictability of the process.
The more experience an attorney has in going to court, the more likely it is that he or she can predict the range of likely outcomes. The ability to make such predictions is dependent upon watching judges make these decisions over a long period of time, and in particular watching the judge assigned to your case make similar decisions in other cases. We often talk to our peers about their experience so we can better predict what a particular judge may rule in your case.
Predictability becomes more difficult as we have more judges assigned to the family law bench. In Vista court, we have five full-time family law judicial officers [judges and commissioners], and one part-time handling support issues. The downtown branch has eight [and three others doing support], and there are several in South Bay and East County.
The commissioners who do nothing but support cases in the Family Support Division of the Superior Court have less latitude since child support has specific guidelines the court's are required to follow most of the time, and spousal support is guided by informal guidelines - even there, however, the judge has wide discretion in determining income and applying various factors when entering data into a computer to calculate net incomes and support.
When you have a family law problem, the best thing you can do is discuss it with a Certified Family Law Specialist: Someone who has devoted his or her career to practice in this field, and who has a lot of courtroom experience. Even those who no longer go to court on a regular basis because they have chosen some form of alternate dispute resolution, had experienced a wide range of fact patterns and have grappled with the various rules that can be applied.
Because of the nature of the certification process, it is also required that they take more 15 hours of specific family law training each year to maintain their certification. The typical lawyer is only required to complete about 8 hours of education per year, and that can be in a broad range of subjects, including those that aren't substantive, such as law office management, bias, and substance abuse - specialists are required to take such classes to keep up their licenses, in addition to the 15 hours in family law. They truly are experts in predicting what judges will do in your case.