Court Process in a Family Matters Case

This page outlines the general procedural steps in family matters cases, from information-gathering for the complaint to judgment.

Step 1: Gather information

The person filing a case is called the plaintiff (or sometimes the “petitioner”) in family matters. As the plaintiff, you will need to gather the following information in order to fill out the court forms:

  • Name, current address, and date of birth for you and the other party (the defendant, or respondent);
  • Your social security number; and
  • For divorce cases, you will need the following information:
    • Whether you or the other party ever filed for divorce or annulment before; and
    • Whether you and/or the other party owns real estate.

If you and the defendant have a child together, you will also need to gather:

  • The name, current address, and date of birth for each child;
  • The name and current address of any person(s) with whom your child has lived in the last five (5) years;
  • Your child’s social security number;
  • Information about any other ongoing court cases involving the child, including the docket number, such as a Protection from Abuse case, or a case in the probate court;
  • Information on any public assistance you may be receiving, or received in the past, for your child from the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS);
  • Information about your income for this year and the last year; and
  • Any childcare expenses you have, and cost of health insurance for each child.

Step 2: Fill Out the Court Forms

The list of court forms to start a family matters case can be found below. Electronic versions of the forms are available on the Court Forms page. Paper forms are available from any district court clerk’s office, except for the Family Matters Summons and Preliminary Injunction form (Summons). The Summons must be obtained from the clerk’s office for a small fee.

Step 3: Serve the court forms on the defendant

The person starting a case (the plaintiff) is responsible for providing copies of the court papers to the other party (the defendant). This is called “service.” After being served, the defendant generally has 21 days to file a response before the case moves to the next phase.

Court rules say you can serve papers generally in one of three ways:

  1. You can give or mail the papers to the defendant, asking him or her to agree to accept service. If the defendant agrees, he or she signs both copies of the Acknowledgment of Receipt of Summons and Complaint (form CV-036), keeps one copy, and sends the other back to you for filing. You file the other original Acknowledgement with the rest of your court papers; or
  2. You can send the papers by certified mail, restricted delivery; or
  3. You can pay a sheriff to give the copies to the defendant. 

You do not need to send the following forms to the other party:

  • Social Security Number Confidential Disclosure (CV-CR-FM-PC-200); and
  • Application to Proceed without Fees (CV-067), with Affidavit (CV-191).

Additional information on completing, serving, and filing the court forms on the defendant may also be found in the following instruction sheets:

Step 4: File the court forms

To file, you must mail or hand deliver signed originals with proof of service to the court with the required filing fee of $120.00. If you cannot afford to pay the filing fee, you may file an Application to Proceed without Fee (CV-067), with accompanying Affidavit (CV-191), asking the court to waive the fee.

The district court in which you file your paperwork will depend on where you live in Maine. You can find a list of courts by town by viewing the Courthouse Locations by Town page along with mailing addresses and phone numbers for each court.

Step 5: Defendant’s time to respond to the complaint

If you have been served with court papers in a divorce or parental rights and responsibilities case, you may file a written response (called an “answer”) within 21 days of when you received the papers. Your answer or response may include a “counterclaim” (a claim against the plaintiff).

You are not required to file an answer, but if you would like to be heard on issues related to the plaintiff’s complaint, you should at minimum file an Entry of Appearance form (FM-020) and attend all court appearances. Note: if you file only an Entry of Appearance, the court may limit the issues you are allowed to bring up to the issues raised in the plaintiff’s complaint.

Step 6: Case Management Conference or Pre-trial Conference

The first time the parties come to court it will be for either:

  • A Case Management Conference with a family law magistrate (for cases involving minor children); or
  • A Pre-Trial Conference with a judge (for cases without children).

More information on what happens in a Case Management Conference can be found in the Important Information Regarding Case Management Conference (FM-87).

Usually no one will testify at this first court appearance. Rather, it is the court’s opportunity to determine if some or all issues are in dispute, and to help develop a plan for resolving the case.

If you and the other party are in full agreement on all issues at the time of the first court appearance and the judge or magistrate approves the agreement, the court may conduct a final uncontested hearing at that time.

If there is not full agreement, the judge or magistrate will help you and the other party develop a plan to resolve the issues on which you disagree.

Step 7: Attend and participate in mediation

Mediation is an informal process in which a specially-trained person appointed by the court (the mediator) listens to both sides and helps the parties reach a mutually acceptable decision. The mediator does not take sides or decide who is right.

If you are not in full agreement, mediation is an opportunity for you and the other party to come to an agreement that is acceptable to both of you. If you and the defendant have children together, mediation is required in most cases. If you have a lawyer, your lawyer may attend mediation with you.

Watch a short video about Mediation in Family Matters cases.

Cases where domestic violence may be involved

If there is a Protection from Abuse case or order involving you and the other party, or if there is a history of domestic violence, bring this to the attention of the court at or before your first court appearance, if you are able. The court may decide mediation is not appropriate or may set up the mediation so that each side meets separately with the mediator. More information on protection orders and domestic violence prevention resources may be found on the Abuse & Harassment page.

If, after mediation, you and the other party are able to resolve all of your issues, and the court agrees with the resolution, the court will hold an uncontested final hearing to put the agreement on the record, and make sure everyone understands the final order.

Step 8: If a contested hearing is necessary

If you and the other party cannot agree on all or any of the issues, then the court must make decisions for you. If you have been able to work out some but not all issues, the hearing will focus only on the unresolved issues.

Your hearing will be with a judge, unless it is only about child support. In that case, the hearing may be in front of a magistrate.

The clerk’s office will notify you and the other party (or your lawyers, if you are represented) by mail or email when a hearing has been scheduled.

At the final hearing, each party will be able to present evidence, including calling witnesses and presenting admissible documents. The court will use the admissible evidence presented during this hearing to come to a final decision.

Step 9: The final order

Following the hearing, the court will announce its decision and issue a final, binding order. The court may announce its decision right away or may take the case “under advisement” to consider the issues further and/or conduct any needed legal research. If the court takes the case under advisement, each party or his or her attorney will receive a copy of the final order by mail.

Step 10: Objecting to or appealing a court order

Objection to a magistrate order

If you disagree with the final order of a family law magistrate, you may file an Objection to Final Order of Magistrate (FM-071) within 21 days of the order. If you file an objection, you must send a copy of it to the other party. Additionally, if you fail to file the objection within 21 days, you may lose your right to object.

After an objection is filed, a district court judge reviews the magistrate’s final order. If you then disagree with the judge’s decision, you may file an appeal, as explained below.

Appeal of a judge’s order

If you disagree with the judge’s final order, you may file an appeal with the Maine Supreme Judicial Court (sitting as the Law Court).

To start an appeal, you must file the following forms in the district court that issued your order:

After filing these forms within the required time period, you must carefully follow the steps to file the appeal as stated in the Maine Rules of Appellate Procedure. The steps involved in completing, or "perfecting," an appeal before it will be considered by the Law Court can be complex. You may want to consult with a lawyer before going ahead with an appeal. See the Get Legal Help page.

If you are unable to attend a court conference or hearing

If you are scheduled for any court event that is difficult or impossible to attend, you may file a written request called a “motion,” asking that the court event be “continued” (postponed or rescheduled), or that you be allowed to participate by telephone. You must state in your motion that you have sent a copy of your request (and you must send a copy to the other party), and you must state whether or not the other party objects to your request. The court may or may not be able to grant your request.

Changing or Enforcing an Order

See the Changing or Enforcing a Final Order in a Family Matters Case page.