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Telling Your Story to the Judge

I would see similar challenges come through my court. From a family court judge’s perspective see what they are and how to present your story to a judge.
(3 min 16 sec read)

Hon. Sherrill Ellsworth (RET)
Judge Ellsworth was one of the court's most respected and admired bench officers. She retired from the bench to focus on having a greater impact on today’s families by making our courts more accessible, effective, and efficient.

During the course of my career, I spent decades trying cases. While each type of case poses its own unique challenges (ex. criminal, contracts, family law, etc.), I would see similar challenges come through my court when trying individual divorce cases. I want to share with you, from a family court judge’s perspective, what they are and how to present your story to a judge.

The late great Mr. Rogers once said, ”discovering the truth about ourselves is a lifetime work, but it’s worth the effort.” As a Judge, I have to find that truth in a matter of moments. How you present yourself or how you tell your story is critical in a family law court.

Here are five tips to help you tell your “truth” or S.T.O.R.Y. to the Judge hearing your case:

  1. Simple
  2. Truth
  3. Organize
  4. Relevance
  5. Yourself

Judges read the pleadings, especially family law judges. When a Judge says, “I have read your pleadings,“ bank on it! That means before you even step into a court, your truth is being told.

Your story or truth should be SIMPLE, concise and to the point. If your story is convoluted or hard to understand it can be misunderstood or lost on the reader. It is not necessary to add extra into your mix or anything that deters from the simple message of what it is you are trying to present. For example, if your truth or story is that you have consistently been at the children’s’ doctor appointments there is no need to muddy that simple truth with telling the court that your soon to be ex had an affair with the neighbor while you were at those doctor appointments.

Truth is better than fiction. When you veer from the truth or pack your story with hyperbole in an effort to garner a leg up with the Judge you do the opposite. Judges are experts who sniff out lies all day long. They are JUDGES, they Judge the facts, the laws, the truth of the matter! When you shade the truth, you risk, by embellishing on a single fact, the wholesale disregarding of everything you say from here on out! Be honest & truthful when telling your story. Better you share the facts up front and truthfully than the other side correctly pointing out your errors.

Organize your thoughts in a logical fashion. Again, unclutter the extreme emotionality and history rehash and either list your story in chronological order or some other order that makes sense. Consider how many files a family law judge has to read daily; A LOT! Make our jobs easier on us by being organized so that a judge can follow your train of thought. Do not be circular or jump from one topic to another. Make this easy for me to read and understand.

Try to share your story based on RELEVANT facts. Relevancy is critical in order for your story not only to be heard but, to be considered. Wasting your truth or story on facts that are irrelevant is a lost opportunity to get the correct information in front of your judge.

In your story be YOURSELF. Your story or truth should be in your voice, not someone else’s voice. Family Law Judges see a lot of boilerplate language or overuse of the same phrases in case after case. It feels a little disingenuous when your story sounds exactly the same as the last four stories or truths presented by the same lawyer or declaration out of the self-help center.

Your story is yours and your voice should be how it is flavored. Remember, you and your ex are going to live with the outcome of the case for a long time, make the effort, put in the work and ask the questions so the story is coming through your voice (and pen), be organized, clear and truthful about your side of the story.

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