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Character Witnesses in Divorce Cases

When people meet with a divorce attorney for the first time, they often ask about character witnesses.  They wonder if they will need witnesses, how many, who would be best to call, et cetera.  The good news is, most cases do not go to trial, and therefore, in most cases, character witnesses are not needed.  However, there are some instances where character witnesses are needed.

Understanding Character Witnesses

Character witnesses are, by definition, people who can testify as to the content of someone’s character.  They may testify more specifically about various topics relevant to a given case, such as:

  • Ability to parent
  • Approach to parenting
  • Approach to discipline
  • Dedication to the children
  • Fidelity in the marriage
  • Acts of physical abuse
  • Community involvement
  • School involvement.

A character witness is someone who knows the party they are testifying about well enough to provide reliable information to the court.  However, in selecting character witnesses, it is important to strike a balance.  A sister or a best friend, for example, may have an opinion about character, however, at some point, a relationship may be considered so close the witness is biased in favor of that party.  For this reason, it is a good idea to consider other choices for character witnesses. Depending on the issue at hand, this may include a reliable babysitter, teachers, work colleagues, or mutual family friends.

Understanding Character Witness Testimony

Character witnesses are called to testify about what they know.  They may be asked about whether someone is a good parent, for example.  However, the answer, a simple “yes,” really doesn’t provide the court with a whole lot of helpful information.  What is more helpful is an example which illustrates why the person is a good parent.  For example, instead of testifying, “Jane is a good parent,” a character witness may testify,

Recently, Jane’s 5-year-old daughter Emma had a dilemma.  Emma came home from school in tears.  She explained that her friends, Rudy and Dawn told her they wouldn’t play with Emma if Emma played with Thomas as well.  So, Emma explained, she thought she could play with Rudy and Dawn at school, and play with Thomas on the bus.  But Thomas was mad at her for not playing with him at school, and wouldn’t play with her on the bus.  He was angry at her and wouldn’t talk to her.

In response, Jane took Emma onto her lap and they had a talk about how Thomas must have felt when Emma wouldn’t play with him at school.  They also talked about the fact Rudy and Dawn were not very nice to put conditions on their friendship with Emma.  Nor was it nice to exclude Thomas from playing with them.  Jane guided the conversation, encouraging Emma to think about how she would feel if she were Thomas.  Together, they came up with an approach for handling the situation.  This approach included an apology to Thomas and a plan for how to handle Rudy and Dawn.

By providing a fact-based, actual series of events, the witness gives the court concrete information on Jane’s parenting abilities.

Understanding How Testimony Works

In court, the witness is first sworn in.  Then they are asked a series of questions by the attorney who called the witness.  After the attorney has completed their questioning, the other attorney has an opportunity to ask questions.  The other attorney may choose to ask no questions.  They may ask a few questions about how long the witness has known the person they are testifying for.  They may explore the issue of bias, meaning, explore whether the character witness may have a skewed view of the person they are testifying for.  In some cases, they may challenge the witness and the witnesses’ conclusions.

Once the witness has been subject to cross-examination, the witness may be asked more questions by the attorney who put them on the stand.  This is referred to as re-direct examination.  The other attorney may then choose to re-cross the witness.  This goes on until both sides are done asking questions.  Then the witness is excused.

Choosing Character Witnesses

Choosing which persons to call as character witnesses is a strategy decision that takes a number of factors into account.  For example, imagine a situation involving abuse.  A neighbor may have overheard arguments that resulted in domestic violence.  They may have even witnessed some abuse.  A co-worker, on the other hand, may have only witnessed a black eye or a swollen wrist.  The witness who saw the abuse is most often a better choice than the witness who only saw evidence of abuse.

When there are two people who could both testify to a fact or issue, there may be other considerations.  Some people are naturally better storytellers than others.  Witnesses that can provide information in an interesting and compelling way are often a better choice than a witness that can only deliver information in a flat, monotone voice.

Deciding which character witnesses to call is a process that should include the client and their lawyer.  Both individuals should discuss the matter.  There are a number of variables to consider.  In addition to those variables discussed above, one should consider:

  • A person’s willingness to testify. An uncooperative witness is rarely a good witness.
  • Availability to testify. If a witness is scheduled to be on vacation or has other duties to attend to, this may weigh against calling them as a character witness.
  • Potential for conflict. In some situations, two different witnesses may have information about the same fact.  If one witness’ testimony will add to long-term family strife, they may not be the best choice.

Considering Divorce?

If you are considering divorce, contact the attorneys at Fait & DiLima. Our family law attorneys will work with you to determine the best course of action for you and your family.  We approach each case with an open mind.  We can discuss your options with you, as well as the pros and cons of various courses of action.  Contact us today to schedule a consultation.

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