If you have a matter in court then sooner or later you will probably need to write a declaration. This is a general guide on how to write an effective declaration. “You,” in this guide, is used in the rhetorical sense. More specific advice should be obtained from your attorney because every case and declaration has particular needs.
First, the writer of a declaration should understand what the document is about and how it will be used. A declaration is a document used to support a motion, or oppose one, by asserting facts. It is a substitute for live testimony and is signed under penalty of perjury much like live testimony is made under oath. When a motion is presented to the court, a judge or court commissioner will base her decision on the facts that she finds through the declarations and supporting documents submitted to her.
A good declaration will be easy to read, on point, and credible. This guide addresses ways to make your declaration shine on all three points.
Easy to read
Judges, and especially commissioners, do not have a lot of time to spend reading long and complicated declarations. You want to make it as easy as possible for the decision maker to understand who you are, what facts you are testifying to, and how you know those facts. One of the top ways to make your declaration easy to read is to organize your thoughts. Your attorney and/or paralegal will help, but their time spent revising it will be more effective if your first draft to them is well organized and their time is your money.
A good way to start writing an organized declaration is to start with a list of topics that your declaration is to cover. Your attorney should be able to help you with this list. For a declaration supporting a motion for temporary orders in a divorce such a list might look something like this:
- Introduction of the marriage and parties
- The parenting arrangements for the child since separation
- Why your proposed parenting plan is best for the children
- How the bills have been paid since separation
- Why you’re asking the court to have your spouse pay certain bills
- Why you need spousal maintenance and how your spouse is able to pay
You could even go into subtopics to get a more detailed outline before writing. For example, you might want to list the reasons why your proposed parenting plan is in the best interests of your children. If you are writing a declaration in response to the opposing party’s declaration you might consider organizing your declaration the same way. Once you have your topics outlined it’s easier to write and have good paragraphs fall into place.
In general, use short paragraphs that start with clear topic sentences. Start each paragraph with a statement of fact and then support it with more specific facts in the rest of the paragraph. Avoid cramming paragraphs with so many details that it is hard to read and digest. It’s generally better to write many simple paragraphs that are easy to understand than to write a few long paragraphs that are harder to understand. Your declaration should more closely resemble a newspaper article than an old Russian novel.
Also on the subject of readability, write naturally and don’t try to write in legalese. You’re not likely to score any points with the court by giving your impression of bad legal writing. You’re more likely to just make your declaration harder to read.
Don’t forget to use other good writing practices like good grammar, spelling, and punctuation. Type or write in your best handwriting.
Writing on point means avoiding going into information that does not matter and the court is not likely to care about. Staying on point keeps the judge interested in your declaration. Going off point makes the judge want to rush through it to find something more helpful to him.
An example of writing on point is to tell the court about your spouse’s drug abuse problem because it affects the parenting plan. Not on point is writing about how your spouse left you for your best friend because Washington is a no-fault divorce state.
The key to staying on point for a represented party is to get good guidance from your attorney on what facts are important for the court to consider. When I’m advising a client and talking about the facts of their situation I will frequently flag important facts for the client by saying something like, “The court needs to hear that.” “Write that in your declaration.”
Staying on point also means sticking to the facts. Declarations are primarily about asserting facts and not arguments. Motion documents and the hearing are the primary places for arguments. Declarations support these arguments with facts.
Even if your declaration is easy to read and on point, it will not do you much good if it lacks credibility. There are several things you can do to increase your credibility.
First, be as specific about your facts as you can. If you’re describing an event, describe when it happened with as much accuracy as you can. If you’re writing about getting a lot of harassing phone calls, tell the court how many phone calls you received over how many days.
Avoid using overly broad and assertive statements like “never” or “always.” If you’re tempted to use one of these words, pause and ask yourself if it is literally true that you’ve never raised your voice or that he is always drunk. Instead consider words like often, frequently, seldom, and rarely. But again, remember to support general statements with specific facts so the court knows how often or how rarely such events have happened in the past.
Make sure it is clear to the reader how you know the facts you are stating. For many things, especially facts about oneself, it may be plain how you know this information. For example, there is no need to explain how you know that you pick up the children from school each day. Other times, it may not be clear and need explanation. For example, the court will want to know how you know that your spouse drinks five times a day when you haven’t lived together for almost a year.
Do you have any declaration writing tips or experiences that you would like to share? Please comment.