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The Divorce Process: A Quick Overview

Divorce proceedings are emotionally distressing and financially draining in most cases. Understanding the basic steps in the divorce process lets you know what to expect when the time comes to file. Here’s what you need to know.

the divorce process illustration

No matter what led you or your spouse to file for divorce, the entire divorce process is an emotional roller-coaster. There are legal procedures you must follow and tough decisions to make that can take months – if not years – to complete. The divorce process differs from state to state, but there is a general format that most divorces follow. If you or someone you love is going through a divorce and you need some information on the process, then this article was curated just for you.

An Introduction to the Divorce Process: Basic Steps to Take

In this brief guide, we will give you an overview of what you need to know and who you can call for guidance when you’re over your head.

What to Do Before Filing for Divorce

Before you file for divorce, it’s a good idea to make copies of all documents related to your expenses, debts, assets, and income. This includes bank account statements, tax returns, life insurance policies, paycheck stubs, etc. In addition to making paper copies, you should create digital copies of those documents and upload them to a password-protected cloud account. If you have any family photos or home videos that you want to keep, you should make copies of them before they “go missing” (it happens in some divorces).

Remove Personal Items from the Marital Home

Be sure to collect your life and medical insurance information (or make copies of your spouse’s documents if you were on their plans), passport, social security card, Will, separate bank and investment accounts, and other important documents. Move these items to a safe place where no one else can touch or move them.

Change Your Passwords

Protect your confidentiality by changing the passwords attached to your personal accounts. This includes passwords to your social media, cloud accounts, cell phone, email, or personal computer. Make sure you change the password to something your spouse won’t be able to guess, e.g., not your children’s birthdays.

Access and Protect Your Credit

Before you start the divorce process, make sure to check your credit. You need to know what debts you have and what your credit currently looks like so you can plan for your financial future. If needed, you can open a credit card in your own name so you have access to emergency funds.

Consider Meeting With a Divorce Lawyer

The divorce process is an emotional and time-consuming process that involves a lot of legal jargon. Even though some people can go it alone – typically, childless couples without much property to divide – managing your own divorce can be time-consuming and frustrating. When you partner with a reputable divorce lawyer, they can help you safely gather the things you need and handle the case on your behalf.

File the Divorce Petition

The divorce process starts when you or your spouse files a divorce petition. The divorce petition is a statement to the court explaining that you want a divorce. The document must include a statement explaining that at least one spouse meets the residency requirement. Most states require one spouse to live in the state for at least three to twelve months and in the county for at least ten days to six months. The court will not accept the document if you or your spouse don’t meet the residency requirements. The petition also needs to explain the reason (or “grounds”) for the divorce; these days, that is almost always some version of “irreconcilable differences.” Each state has its own grounds for no-fault divorce, and some states have at-fault grounds as well. No-fault grounds include incompatibility, irretrievable breakdown, and irreconcilable differences. At-fault grounds include abandonment, infertility, substance abuse, physical or emotional abuse, incarceration, and impotence, among others.

Request Temporary Court Orders if Necessary

Family law courts understand that it is not ideal to wait months for a judge to finalize a divorce, especially when one parent has been staying at home to raise the children. The stay-at-home parent is dependent on their spouse’s income, so they’ll need temporary orders for child support and custody. These temporary orders can also include spousal support (aka “alimony”) during the divorce process. When asking for a temporary order, the court will hold a hearing and gather information from both spouses. Once they review the information, the judge will make a decision on the request. If they agree with your request, the order must stay in force until the court says otherwise.

File Proof of Service

Once you file for the divorce and request temporary orders, you must serve your spouse and file a proof of service with the court. This document advises the court that you met the statutory requirements for serving your spouse. The judge cannot proceed with the divorce process until you serve your spouse and file the proof of service. If you are uncomfortable with serving your spouse, your lawyer can have someone do that for you.

Negotiate a Settlement

Unless you and your spouse agree on property division and other matters like child custody and support, you will need to negotiate. The court will schedule a settlement conference where you, your spouse, and your respective attorneys will meet to discuss the nuts and bolts of your divorce. The court can arrange for mediation with a neutral third party if needed. Some states mandate mediation, but even if the state doesn’t require it, mediation can help save you time, money, and stress during a divorce.

Go to Trial (if You Can’t Reach an Agreement Out of Court)

If negotiation or mediation fails, you will need to go through a divorce trial. Most divorce trials are held before a judge, but there are some cases where a jury might be present. In either case, your and your spouse’s lawyers will present evidence and call witnesses to support each side’s claims.

Finalize the Judgment

If your case goes to trial, the judge will issue a final order known as an order of dissolution (although the name can vary depending on the state). This document specifies the details of what each spouse’s rights and obligations per the agreed-upon order, and it ends the marriage. If you reach an amicable agreement via negotiation, your attorney will have the judge sign off on your agreement.

Understanding the Divorce Process Helps to Reduce Fear of the Unknown

Divorce proceedings are emotionally distressing and financially draining regardless of whether the divorce was amicable or not. Understanding the steps in the divorce process before you file a divorce can give you a heads-up of what to expect when the time comes to file. Even though you could file for divorce on your own, you should consider at least speaking with an attorney about your options and to protect your own interests.