Frequently when relationships start to falter, people begin to inquire as to what their rights are in court. Understanding the differences between what can be accomplished in Family Court and Supreme Court in New York is an important first step!
First of all, only married individuals can seek matrimonial relief in Supreme Court, which has exclusive jurisdiction over divorces and equitable distribution. Unmarried individuals with children in common or who live together with or without children can seek relief for issues in Family Court such as child support, custody and visitation and orders of protection.
That being said, people who are married (or have been divorced) do have a choice as to whether to file in Supreme Court for a divorce (or post judgment action) or to file in Family Court if they have just one issue that is important to them. Sometimes the decision to choose Family Court may be made in reaction to the actions of the other party, such as a quick decision to file for an order of protection. Sometimes an individual wants money to support their children but does not want to file for a divorce either because they want to ultimately work things out or perhaps they are just not ready to call it quits on their marriage, but in the interim they have to feed their children.
Representation is an important factor in choosing which court you want your case to be heard in. Family Court is generally an easier venue in which an unrepresented individual may file because there are clerks available to help fill out the paperwork which is generally free of charge. While not absolutely necessary, it is nonetheless desirable to have the advice and representation of an attorney in Family Court. Likewise, while hiring a lawyer for Supreme Court is not imperative and one can represent oneself (called “pro-se”) it is a much harder court to navigate than Family court. Additionally, in order to have an issue heard by a Judge in Supreme Court one must first file and personally serve the opposing party and file a request for judicial intervention. In Family Court, the court personnel and/or the sheriff’s office will serve for you and your case may be heard sooner.
Family and Supreme courts also have different policies regarding who will hear your case. With issues such as custody and child support, a Family Court case may be in front of a magistrate or referee rather than a judge. Sometimes a party may want multiple issues heard. In Family Court they may be heard in front of different individuals, in different courtrooms on different days, whereas in Supreme Court, in the context of a divorce, all the issues will generally be heard in the same courtroom.
When making the decision whether to file in Family Court or Supreme Court, there is not necessarily a right or wrong decision. The best thing to do is to discuss the specific facts of your case and utilize the experience and skill of an attorney to help you decide what is ultimately best for you in your individual circumstances.