Family Law Triage: Emergency Room or Operating Room?

In the medical community, “triage” is the assignment of degrees of urgency to injuries to decide the order of treatment.

Lawyers and Judges conduct their own version of Family Law triage to prioritize and resolve separating couple’s issues. Within the scope of the usual Family Law issues of Parenting Time/Decision-making, Support and Property Division, there are layers of urgency.

Before contacting a lawyer, spouses should contemplate how these issues will be prioritized.

The Emergency Room

Firstly, it bears mentioning that no family warrants more urgent attention than one where the safety or security of a family member is at immediate risk. For these types of matters, a lawyer should not be the first phone call. The local police or Children’s Services should be contacted. These are the public authorities that would be appropriately engaged to investigate and take the further steps toward protection, accountability and prosecution they deem fit.

Emergency Protection Orders and Restraining Orders can also be directly obtained by the victim(s) and Family Lawyers may assist with these Orders as needed.

Family Violence and Child Endangerment are treated with the highest priority in the Family Law realm.

Although lives may not be directly at risk, there also may be some urgency in seeking relief on Parenting Time/Decision-making, Support and Property Division. Examples include:

  • an emergency parenting court order may be needed where a co-parent intends to take some immediate unilateral action on behalf of a child; perhaps a medical/educational decision or permanent relocation to another city;
  • an emergency support court order may be required where a spouse’s failure to pay support will result in dire consequences for the other spouse and their ability to meet their immediate day-to-day needs; and
  • an emergency property court order may be required where one of the parties is improperly disposing of the parties’ assets or borrowing on the parties’ debt.

Without some immediate interim short-term relief, one of the parties or their children will suffer irreparable harm or irrecoverable loss. Time is of the essence. 

The Operating Room

For the far more common proceedings of Family Law, the luxury of time will permit comprehensive information-gathering and evaluation of the more complicated long-term issues of Parenting Time/Decision-making, Support and Property Division. The aim here is something resembling a final remedy.  

Full transparency is expected of the parties, by way of financial disclosure, as is thorough presentation of proof of their respective positions. Qualified experts may also be asked to weigh in with their opinions on adequate treatment and relief.  The forum decision will be important here as well, with the parties choosing whether to explore amicable resolution through mediation options or to have their dispute adjudicated by the Court through litigation.

In terms of urgency, not all Family Law issues are created equal. Triaging these issues will be an analysis of the metrics of harm, risk, time and complexity.

Written by Nigel Montoute

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