Contested Divorce: What It Is, How Much It Costs & More

Spouses who want to end their marriage are encouraged to reach a divorce settlement to reduce the time and money spent on divorce. However, this isn't always possible.

A contested divorce can mean thousands of dollars spent on legal fees and tons of stress. However, it may be the best course of action for you. Learn what to expect to increase your chances of a successful case.

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What is contested divorce?

A contested divorce means spouses disagree on resolving one or more topics of their divorce. Reasons spouses may pursue a contested divorce include:

  • Circumstances that make it difficult for spouses to consider settlement (e.g., abuse)
  • Living in a state with community property law (in which assets are split 50/50) but wanting a different split of assets
  • Concerns that a spouse is hiding assets
  • Child custody disagreements

Even if your case starts out contested, settlement is still possible.

Contested versus uncontested divorce

An uncontested divorce is the opposite of a contested divorce. In an uncontested divorce, spouses decide the terms of their divorce rather than leaving them up to a judge.

In many jurisdictions, spouses who have an uncontested divorce don't even have to appear in court. Contested cases, on the other hand, go to trial if a settlement isn't reached; before trial, they have other court appearances.

While a spouse can appeal the judge's decision in a contested case, you cannot appeal the terms of a divorce settlement agreement. You can modify the terms later by agreement or, if you don't agree, ask the court to decide whether a change is appropriate.

Contested divorce is an adversarial process, whereas uncontested divorce is more amicable. The latter can help preserve a healthy dynamic between you and your ex, which is vital if you have children together.

What happens in a contested divorce?

The divorce process varies based on your location and the details of your case. Regardless, a case becomes contested when one spouse files for divorce and the other responds that they disagree with the requested divorce terms.

You'll probably have to attend divorce mediation at some point during your case. If you reach a full agreement there, you can settle your case and skip to the end of the legal process.

At your first court appearance, the judge will briefly hear about the issues in dispute and set a target schedule for your case. You may not have to attend if you have a lawyer.

You may have other hearings throughout your case to check in or to address motions (requests made by a party). For example, you may have a hearing to get a temporary order.

You might also have conferences. At a settlement conference, you, your spouse and your respective lawyers will try to negotiate a divorce settlement. The court will likely schedule a pretrial conference to make sure your case is ready to proceed to trial.

Throughout the court process, you'll exchange documents and information in preparation for trial through a process called discovery. Discovery may include depositions, the out-of-court questioning of witnesses.

At trial, each side presents their case so the judge can make a final decision. If you have a lawyer, they will present your case for you. If you're divorcing without a lawyer, you'll have to present your own case. You'll question witnesses and present exhibits to back up your arguments.

After trial, you'll get a copy of the divorce judgment signed by the judge.

A spouse may appeal the judge's decision if they have a legal basis. You'll have a set amount of time, usually 30 days, to appeal.

If the judge orders one spouse to reimburse the other for legal fees, you may have a hearing after your trial to assess costs.

How much does a contested divorce cost?

The average cost of a contested divorce is $15,000 to $20,000.

Some spouses try to proceed without a lawyer to save money. However, it's very difficult to handle a contested case on your own. It's in your best interest to at least consult with a lawyer.

Another factor in costs is the length of your case. Cases can resolve within months or may take years. If you're able to settle some issues in your case, you'll need less time in court, which can save you money.

Complicated cases may require custody evaluations, property appraisals and other expert input that costs thousands.

Going through a contested divorce as a parent

Preparation is the most important part of the divorce process — especially if you're a parent.

Evidence you might file in a divorce involving custody includes:

The Custody X Change online app lets you create all of these in one place. It makes sure you're ready to get what's best for your child.

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