The Process of Getting a Divorce

For the average person, the divorce process invokes a multitude of intense feelings, including fear, confusion, anguish, and heartbreak. While the thought of the divorce process often involves images of courtroom drama with expensive, high-powered attorneys, only a small fraction of cases involve extensive time in court. The majority of cases are resolved through negotiation of the details out of court and through mediation. Some couples are able to get a divorce without even involving attorneys.

Things to Consider

Divorce is a huge step; if you're not sure it's the right move, consider seeking counseling before making your final decision. You also need to take into account what your state's laws are for division of property, etc., so you can plan ahead. If you have children, preparing them for what lies ahead is important. Programs are available for children adjusting to the divorce of their parents.

Filing Process

Most county or district courts have a family law department, which is where you will need to file your paperwork. A quick Google search will help you find the right one for your jurisdiction. While family court staff are unable to provide legal advice, they can provide you with the forms and assist you with the mechanics of how to file for divorce. Only an attorney can provide you with legal advice.

Most jurisdictions require that one person be named the Petitioner and the other the Respondent, regardless of accusations of fault. If the divorce is likely to be contested, the Petitioner files the initial petition for dissolution of marriage and arranges to have this served to the Respondent. The cost of the initial filing varies widely, ranging, for example, from $70 in Wyoming to $408 in Florida.

State Laws

Every state defines its own rules for marriage and divorce by statute. Each state is different, but many states have rationalized family law statutes around several common themes:

  • Most jurisdictions have a residency requirement, which means you must have lived there for a certain period of time, generally six months or less, before filing a petition for divorce.

  • The division of assets depends on whether or not the state is a common law property state or community property state.

  • The judge has considerable leeway in considering the best interests of children in disagreements over custody.

  • Child support guidelines generally follow a formula that incorporates the custody arrangement and financial resources available to the parents.

  • Alimony guidelines typically consider the length of the marriage as well as the financial resources and earning potential of each person.

Managing Expectations

Part of what makes divorce so difficult is that every case is unique. It's difficult to estimate the time and cost to complete the process, but it's cheaper and faster if you can stay on good terms with your ex. However, even the simplest of cases involve some form of property division. Other than bank accounts, most property, such as cars, real estate, or furniture, cannot be physically divided, and in most cases you will need to negotiate disposition with your ex. More complex cases include considerations such as alimony, child support and child custody. While child support is often determined by statutes, most other points are open to negotiation. This includes child sharing schedules (weekdays, weekends, vacations) and alimony payment amount and duration.