What Happens at a Mandatory Settlement Conference?

During the course of a family law matter, such as divorce, legal separation or dissolution of domestic partnership, many California courts offer the option of a scheduled “settlement conference.” In some counties, including San Diego, this is a mandatory proceeding, should the parties be unable to resolve their dispute among themselves. It is, in essence, a last-ditch effort to come to an agreement before proceeding to a formal trial.

If a case proceeds to this point, the parties or their attorneys are required to “meet and confer” prior to the settlement conference date. Attorneys may confer in person or by phone or email to narrow down what issues have already been settled and what issues remain unresolved. The goal is to frame the actual settlement conference, so everyone involved can focus on what’s truly in dispute at that time.

In preparation for a settlement conference, the Court will appoint one or more “settlement conference judges” (attorneys who volunteer to assist in the process). After the “meet and confer” process is completed, both sides must prepare settlement conference briefs to give to the settlement judge and share with the opposing party. Generally, these briefs include an overall summary of the case to date, including issues to be presented, each party’s position and/or proposals and, lastly, any documentation in support of the party’s position. As I tell my clients, while they’re called “briefs,” there’s nothing brief about them!

On the date of the settlement conference, the parties and attorneys show up in court, check in with the department where the case is being heard and listen to a few words offered by the courtroom Judge (not the same as the settlement judge). Then the parties, attorneys and settlement judge begin their meeting and attempt to work out a settlement of all disputed issues. The settlement judge doesn’t have the power to render decisions; he or she is there solely to help facilitate an agreement. If by the end of the conference, parties can reach a settlement, in part or in whole, usually the Court will allow them to put everything on the record. If they’re unable to reach agreement, the Court then sets a trial date to resolve the dispute.

Mandatory Settlement Conferences generally have no costs beyond your attorney fees. It is certainly worth exploring as an alternative to going to trial. Speaking from experience, it’s almost always better to compromise to something you can accept, than to roll the dice and put your issues before a Judge, who may or may not know all of the factors when coming to a decision on your substantive issues such as child custody and division of property, a decision that may effect the rest of your life.

Are you in need of legal counseling for divorce or dissolution of a domestic partnership? The Law Offices of Ian S. Topf offer free consultation in a variety of issues, ranging from family law, estate planning, bankruptcy, and DUIs and landlord/tenant disputes.