The divorce process is very complex, and it takes a lot of steps. These steps can take months or even years to complete, depending on how cooperative the two parties are.
The following provides an outline for the typical sequence of events that occur during a divorce. This timeline should not be considered nonnegotiable or absolute, as different states and countries have varying legal requirements that can alter the process.
1. Decide to Separate and Divorce
Many couples often get confused with terminologies such as “legal separation,” “annulment,” and “divorce.” Although they all suggest that the couple no longer wants to get married, they do not have the same meanings.
During a legal separation, the couple lives in separate homes but remain legally married. However, they are not allowed to remarry since this is the only way to ensure that their separation is official under state law. Some states do not allow legal separations or recognize them as a valid legal procedure.
An annulment has the same effect as a divorce except it voids the marriage. That is, it treats the marriage as if it never happened. Like legal separation, this is only possible under state law if the proper procedures are met.
A divorce legally terminates a valid marriage and allows both parties to remarry if they so choose. Under state law, there are certain requirements for an uncontested divorce to occur.
2. File the Petition
The first step in a divorce is for one spouse to file a petition with the court, which requests that the marriage be dissolved. The petitioner submits the requisite forms and documents requested by state law, including an affidavit of income and expenses, copies of tax returns, property inventory or appraisal reports, and the petition for divorce.
If both parties have agreed to end their marriage and have no disagreements over property distribution or custody arrangements, then they may file together with a joint petition. If there are disagreements, then each party files a petition independently.
3. Service of Petition and Summons
Once the petition is filed, a summons must be issued before a judge can make a ruling on whether there are grounds for the marriage to be dissolved. Note, though, that most states now recognize a no-fault divorce. This means that grounds are not necessary to dissolve the marriage.
The petitioner mails copies of both documents together with a cover letter to the respondent’s home or work address, depending on the state law. The petitioner serves this document to his or her spouse by either hiring a professional process server or handing it over in person.
If the petitioner cannot serve this summons and petition, he or she may apply for a waiver of service, which allows them to file an affidavit informing the court that they were unable to serve their spouse within 60 days.
5. File a Response
The respondent has 30 days to respond with their own petition for divorce. If they do not respond within this period, the petitioner can request that the judge grant them a default divorce.
6. Schedule Temporary Hearings and Trial Dates
If the respondents file their answer before the deadline expires, then both parties will be required to attend a number of hearings with the judge to settle any issues that cannot be resolved between themselves. These hearings are usually shorter, but they establish the ground rules for the proceedings. If no agreement is reached at these hearings, then both parties will attend a trial date where they argue their respective positions in front of a judge.
7. Create a Settlement Agreement
If the parties choose to end their dispute through settlement, then they can enter into a mutual agreement that is legally binding with respect to child custody and visitation schedules, financial support for either party, and property distribution. The terms of this agreement must be fair for both sides, or it will not hold up in court.
Couples can explore many ways to reach an agreement. For example, they can participate in a collaborative divorce. The parties will hire lawyers, but the goal is to negotiate an agreement rather than to litigate.
Alternatively, they can use mediation or arbitration instead of traditional litigation to settle their disputes. This method is similar to collaborative divorce, except that the two parties hire mediators or arbitrators who help them reach a resolution without involving the court system.
8. Attend a Trial
This step is only necessary if the parties have not been able to reach a settlement agreement with one another. The trial involves each party presenting their respective legal cases and evidence before a judge or jury in front of an impartial decision-maker.
If the petitioner is successful, then the divorce will be granted. If not, then both parties will remain married until they can legally separate through another step in the process.
9. Reach a Final Judgment and Receive a Decree of Divorce
If the petitioner is successful, then a judge will render a final judgment of divorce that ends the couple’s legal marital status.
The divorce process varies slightly depending on whether the parties are able to reach an agreement or if they must follow a litigated route. They may not have to proceed through all of these steps, either. If the facts are straightforward, then it is usually possible for them to settle their disputes without ever appearing before a judge.