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Disclosures: No More Surprises

While it makes for great drama in television shows, movies, and books about the legal system, the truth is there really aren't many surprises in court. Most of the time, the court has rules that require the people involved in a court case (the parties) to share information with each other shortly after a case gets filed. The courts do this because many legal matters are complicated, and it is hard to achieve justice when people are dealing with a never-ending roller coaster of surprises when they finally get into court. The way the court makes people share information with each other is through the disclosure process.

In the family law court (the majority of the cases AZ 3D Law handles are family law cases, so it makes for a good example), disclosure is mostly covered by Rule 49 of the Arizona Rules of Family Law Procedure. That rule tells us what kind of information the parties are required to exchange. The exact information the parties need to exchange depends on the case type - for instance, if people are trying to figure out whether someone is a child's father (a paternity case) they will need to exchange different information than people trying to figure out how to fairly divide their assets and debts so they can part ways (a divorce case). Often, the most important information the parties exchange is financial information - things like tax returns, pay stubs, and an affidavit of financial information - because it is very difficult to do math on the fly during a trial.

Usually, Rule 49 tells us that the disclosure process should be completed forty (40) days after a Response has been filed in a case. Considering how long it takes most cases to get into court for an initial hearing of some kind (to say nothing of the actual, final trial date) the forty-day mark might be one of the earliest major milestones in a case. The court can, of course, change that date as needed, and often does if a hearing won't take place for quite some time. Often (but not always) the court will require disclosures to be completed before the initial hearing takes place, and since that hearing might be more than forty days out, the parties sometimes end up with extra time to exchange their disclosures. The parties to a case should always pay attention to the orders the court enters, especially when those orders deal with important deadlines like the disclosure date. There are other rules that cover disclosures (Rule 91 comes to mind) under certain circumstances, such as when a person is trying to modify a court order, and those rules provide different time frames and different requirements. Disclosures are not unique to family law cases, so different case types will likely have similar (but different) requirements, time frames, and rule numbers.

A great way to use disclosures is to figure out whether there is anything the parties can agree on. By making agreements (settlements) the parties can narrow the number of issues that need to come before the court. This can help keep costs down, and it can also help the parties spend more time focusing on the issues they really disagree about. For that reason, it often pays off to get disclosures done quickly and thoroughly. If the disclosures are thorough enough, and the parties feel like they have enough information, it might even be possible to reach a settlement with just the information contained in the disclosures.

The disclosure process can be annoying - nobody likes gathering a bunch of documents - but it is an important part of a case and an important requirement that both parties need to comply with. While it can be a bit of a headache, spending the time to make good disclosures can pay off in the long run. If you are a party to a case and aren't sure what you need to disclose, or are running into trouble getting disclosures from the other side, you should talk to a lawyer (if you don't already have one) so you can get it done and do it right.

David Mercer