Divorce is a complicated process in some cases. Depending on how long the parties have been married and the state of the current relationship between them, divorces might be very quick and painless. Of course, a divorce might also be drawn out and difficult.

Getting a divorce is an uncertain time for most people, and knowing the steps to a divorce might help people navigate the process. Although the divorce process may vary from state to state, the following chronology is generally accurate:

  • Step 1: Filing of the Complaint
    With the assistance of an attorney, one of the spouses prepares a petition for dissolution of their marriage, which states the grounds for the dissolution if their state requires that grounds be stated. In some states, dissolution can be no fault. The petition would also set out how the spouse wants to settle issues such as spousal support, child custody, child support, property division and other issues. The lawyer then files this petition with the court. The lawyer also makes sure that the petition is served on the other spouse;
  • Step 2: Response
    The spouse served with the petition usually has 30 days to respond to the petition. Failure to answer the petition gives the spouse who filed the petition the right to seek judgment by default. In this case, the spouse who filed the petition would win the resolution of all issues that they requested in their petition. If the other spouse files an answer to the petition, they can agree completely with the allegations in the original petition or they can contest the allegations.
  • Step 3: Discovery
    In this step, the spouses exchange documents regarding the issues in their divorce. There might also be depositions of the parties and possibly others who have relevant information about the issues in the dissolution, e.g. assets and debts. The documents exchanged would disclose all of the spouses’ assets in whatever form as well as their debts and their incomes, This exchange can often be heated. At this stage, some couples choose to voluntarily resolve their differences through mediation.
  • Mediation: Sometimes judges order divorcing couples to participate in mediation before going to trial. But spouses also have the option of engaging in mediation on their own before they file for divorce or at any time after filing and before a trial begins and issues are finalized. Mediation has several advantages as follows:
    • Cost: Mediation may be less expensive than a trial;
    • Settling the Case: Many mediations end successfully in settlement of all of the issues in the divorce;
    • Confidentiality. Mediation is confidential, so there is no public record of what happens in mediation sessions. This is important to some people;
    • Freedom: Mediation allows the spouses to arrive at a resolution based on their ideas of what is fair and workable for the spouses’ situation, rather than having a solution imposed by a judge based on rigid and impersonal legal principles;
    • Lawyers Can Remain Involved: A person can go to mediation and still choose to have a lawyer give them legal advice. A person could have a lawyer represent them at trial;
    • Control: The spouses control the process and not the court;
    • Communication: The mediation process encourages communication between the spouse, which might help them avoid future conflicts.

Mediation for family law issues may also be mandatory in some states for certain issues such as:

  • Calculating the amount of child support;
  • Determining child custody schedules;
  • Calculating spousal support, both temporary and permanent;
  • Setting up a child visitation schedule based on the needs of each parent, as well as the child’s best interests; and
  • Allowing parties to discuss past instances of abuse or infidelity in a safe environment.

Some states may require mandatory mediation if there is a dispute involving financial matters that come within a specific dollar amount. Each state has its own laws regarding mandatory mediation.

However, there are situations in which experts recommend that a spouse avoid mediation. And courts may excuse spouses from mandatory mediation if these issues are at play in a case:

  • Domestic Violence: If a spouse has been the victim of domestic abuse or fears for the safety of their children, they may want to avoid mediation. If a spouse is currently experiencing or has recently experienced domestic violence or the threat of violence, mediation is not advised. The person should seek the help of a lawyer and pursue all of their available legal remedies. If there was abuse in the relationship at some time in the past, a person should weigh the pros and cons of mediating carefully and possibly consult their lawyer about whether it is advisable.
    • Also, most mediators take precautions to ensure that mediation occurs in safe conditions. They might, for example, meet separately with the spouses. But spouses who have been the victims of domestic abuse may still want to avoid the process. Reportedly, there are mediators who do not take cases that involve domestic violence;
  • Deceitful or Untrustworthy Spouse: If a person suspects that their spouse is hiding assets, wasting funds, or lying, mediation may not be the best course of action. It is difficult, if not impossible, to negotiate successfully unless both spouses are truthful, make full disclosures, and play by the rules;
  • Delay of Proceedings: One spouse may suspect that the other spouse only wants to delay the proceedings. This is because a divorce mediator cannot order either spouse to do anything. A spouse who want to delay the proceedings or avoid financial commitments can agree to mediation in order to stall the process;
  • Claiming Fault: When one spouse claims that the other is legally at fault for ending the marriage (a claim that cannot be made in all states), a successful mediation is less likely, but still not impossible. If a person’s spouse has already hired a lawyer, the person should seriously consider hiring one, too. A lawyer will help a person decide if participating in mediation is worth it based on the facts of their situation.
  • Step 4: Settlement
    If the parties agree on the terms of the divorce after an exchange of documents and depositions, then a settlement is possible. The settlement is the agreement about the terms of the divorce and all contested issues involved. Once an agreement is reached, it is shown to a judge at an informal hearing attended by both spouses and their lawyers. Judges typically ask a few factual questions at these hearings just to confirm that each party understands what they have agreed to and have done so voluntarily.
  • Step 5: Issuance of the Divorce Decree
    With an eye towards fairness, the judge reviews an agreement one last time and then issues a final decree of divorce indicating what the parties have agreed to. If the judge does not approve of the agreement, or a couple cannot reach an agreement in the first place, the judge orders a trial to determine how the final decree should be drafted.
  • Step 6: Trial and Final Order
    In the unfortunate circumstance that the parties cannot agree on the divorce terms, a trial takes place. During trial, attorneys for both sides present evidence and arguments as to why the final judgment and order should contain certain provisions and not others. The judge then decides any unresolved issues using the applicable laws of the state in which the divorce takes place. Once the judge decides on a resolution of the issues in the divorce agreement, the judge grants a divorce and issues a final order containing decisions on all of the issues presented by the parties.
  • Step 7: Possible Appeal
    If either side is unhappy with the judge’s decision, they may appeal to an appellate court. As with most cases, it is very unusual for an appellate court to overturn a judge’s decision. Courts generally give great deference to a trial court’s judgment on the issues in a case. If, however, some significant error of law was made by the trial court judge, the case could be overturned on appeal and sent back to the trial court for further proceedings.

Should I Contact a Lawyer Regarding My Divorce?

An experienced divorce lawyer is vital to making sure that you get everything you are entitled to.
A divorce lawyer is very familiar with the divorce process and can fill you in on all the details. Initially a lawyer would draft the petition for one spouse or the answer for the other. As the case progresses, they can manage the exchange of documents, depositions, settlement negotiations, and any trial issues. They can give valuable advice during a mediation. You do not want to go through what may be the most important legal process of your life without the sound advice of a qualified divorce lawyer.