The Divorce Process Step-by-Step

The divorce process is an intimidating prospect if you're considering divorce. The potentially high costs and time spent in court are enough to deter anyone. But it is unavoidable if you want to end your marriage.

The process will be short if you have an uncontested divorce. If you litigate, expect a longer process with more steps.

The steps to divorce vary by location and your case. However, there are some steps that are common in many circumstances. Knowing what to expect can help ease your anxiety and help you prepare for what's next.

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How long does a divorce take?

The length of a divorce is influenced by the requirements of your court and whether you and your spouse have reached a settlement agreement.

In some locations, uncontested divorces can revolve within weeks. If you have a contested divorce, it typically takes a year to complete the divorce process step-by-step. The more you argue and hold grudges, the longer — and more expensive — your divorce will be. Some divorce cases even last years.

1. Filing for divorce

The first step to starting the divorce process is to file a divorce petition. You can find divorce forms online and at your local courthouse.

The spouse who files a petition first is called the petitioner. The other spouse is the respondent.

The petition details who is involved in the case, their personal information, the ground (reason) for divorce, and what the petitioner wants the court to grant among other case information. All U.S. states and many other locations allow you to ask for a no-fault divorce, meaning neither parent is officially to blame for the marriage ending.

Before filing your petition, check to see if there is a minimum separation period or a residency requirement in your location. The court won't accept your petition if you don't meet these prerequisites.

If you have a child, confirm that the court has jurisdiction to make custody decisions about them. You may face other requirements, like taking a parenting class to learn how to limit the effects of divorce on your children.

When you hand in your forms to the court, you'll have to pay filing fees. You may apply for a fee waiver if you cannot afford them.

If you file a joint petition for divorce, you are co-petitioners, and you can skip to the last step of the divorce process. You may have a hearing along the way.

2. Serving divorce papers

After divorce papers are filed, you must notify the respondent of the case by serving them. This is when copies of your paperwork are given to them. In most jurisdictions, someone else must serve the respondent. You can ask an adult friend or hire a process server to serve.

The server must fill out an Affidavit of Service form, then sign and date it. You'll file this with the court. Your case cannot proceed without proof of service.

Sometimes, the respondent agrees to accept service. They'll fill out an Acceptance of Service form, which you'll file with the court. Or they can waive service entirely. These methods are common in uncontested cases.

Typically, the respondent has 30 days to respond. If they don't respond within that time, the court might grant the petitioner a divorce without the respondent's input.

Skip to the last step if you have an agreement or as soon as you reach one, but you may have a hearing along the way.

3. Divorce mediation

During divorce mediation, a neutral professional helps spouses talk through their differences to guide them toward a settlement.

Advantages of mediation include:

  • Privacy: Nothing you say can be used against you in court.
  • Timing: The mediator schedules sessions around your availability and the process is quicker than going through the divorce process step-by-step.
  • Amicability: You must work together for the process to be successful and may develop a better post-divorce relationship because of it.
  • Impartiality: The mediator cannot take sides.

Some courts require spouses to try mediation. If not, the spouses may go voluntarily.

If you reach an agreement, the mediator will write down the terms, but you usually need to hire a lawyer to draft a formal settlement agreement or do it yourself. Then, you can file it with the court and skip to the last step of the process.

If you're a parent, mediation can help you foster a healthy co-parenting relationship with your ex. Mediation teaches you how to effectively communicate and compromise to make the best decisions for your children.

4. Divorce hearings

You'll likely have hearings to manage the progress of your case and address requests made by the spouses.

Early in your case, the judge may call a hearing to plan out the divorce process. Here, you'll discuss the possibility of settling the case and set out a schedule for discovery, conferences and a tentative trial date among other things.

If either spouse requests temporary orders, you'll have a hearing. A judge will review your paperwork and ask parents questions to figure out the best way to handle things.

If your divorce is uncontested, the judge may call a hearing to confirm both spouses are in agreement about the terms of the divorce and that the terms are fair and in the child's best interest if there are children involved.

5. Discovery

Discovery is the exchange of information in preparation for trial or settlement.

The discovery process involves the exchange of documents (e.g., financial statements) and may also include depositions (on-the-record questioning of the spouses and their witnesses) and interrogatories (written questions the spouses must answer).

Discovery may involve expert investigations. The results of psychological assessments, custody evaluations and property appraisals, among other studies, could influence the judge's final decision.

6. Divorce trial

You will have a trial if you don't reach an agreement earlier in the divorce process. You or your lawyer will present your arguments, evidence and witnesses and question the other side after they do the same. A judge makes a decision based on what they heard.

Some places have jury trials for divorce. Juries typically make decisions about property division, alimony and child support but not child custody.

7. Divorce decree

After the divorce decree is issued, either side can file an appeal if they feel the judge made a legal error. They'll need to prove that there are laws and prior case decisions that support overturning the ruling.

Going through the divorce process as a parent

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

Documents you might file as evidence in a divorce involving custody include:

The Custody X Change online app lets you create all of these in one place. It makes sure you're ready to take on the divorce process step-by-step.

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