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Divorce Chronology

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What Are the General Steps That Occur in a Divorce?

Divorce is a complicated process. Depending on how long you have been married and your current relationship with your spouse divorces can be very quick and painless, or drawn out and painful. Divorce is an uncertain time for many people, and knowing the steps to a divorce can help you get through the process. Although the divorce process varies slightly 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 writes up a petition (i.e. complaint), that says why the spouse wants a divorce and how he or she wants to settle financial, custody, and other issues. The lawyer then files this petition with the court.  The lawyer also ensures that the complaint is served on the other spouse together with a summons requiring the spouse’s response. 
  • Step 2 – Response
    The spouse served with the complaint has an opportunity to respond. Within a few weeks the served spouse must answer whether he or she agrees with the complaint. By default in many states, a failure to answer the complaint is viewed as an agreement to its terms. The answer or response can agree completely with the original complaint or it can include statements about how the served spouse would prefer to handle divorce decisions.
  • Step 3 – Document exchange, possible mediation with an eye toward resolution.
    In this step couples exchange documents and other information about issues such as property and income. This exchange can often be heated and filled with disagreement as to what documents are true and honest. Some couple at this stage chose to voluntarily resolve their differences through mediation. Some states even require that divorcing couples go through the mediation process before they will analyze a divorce settlement.
  • Step 4 – Settlement
    If the parties agree after the exchange of documents on the terms of the divorce then a settlement can occur. The settlement is the agreement about the terms of the divorce. The agreement reached will be shown to a judge at an informal hearing where both spouses and their lawyers will appear. Judges typically ask a few factual questions at these hearings just to confirm that each party understands what they are agreeing to.  
  • Step 5 – Issuance of the divorce decree
    With a general eye towards fairness the judge will look over the agreement one last time and then issue a divorce decree indicating what the parties have agreed to. If the judge doesn’t approve of the agreement, or a couple cannot reach an agreement in the first place, the judge will order a trial to determine how the agreement should read. 
  • Step 6 – Trial
    In the unfortunate circumstance that the parties can’t agree on the divorce terms a trial will occur. During trial both side’s attorneys present evidence and arguments why the agreement should read a certain way. The judge then decides any unresolved issues using the applicable laws available to him or her. Once the judge decides the resolution of the issues in the divorce agreement, he grants a divorce. 
  • Step 7 – Possible appeal
    If either side is unhappy with the judge’s decision they may appeal his or her decision to an appeals court. As with most cases, it's very unusual for an appeals court to overturn a judge's decision because appeals courts generally trust the judge’s judgment on a matter.

Should I Contact a Lawyer Regarding My Divorce?

A divorce lawyer is familiar with the divorce process. Initially they will help draft you the complaint or answer, and then later assist you with the exchange of documents, settlement, and any trial issues. A good divorce attorney is vital to making sure that you get everything that you are entitled to.

Photo of page author Ken LaMance

, LegalMatch Law Library Managing Editor and Attorney at Law

Last Modified: 04-14-2017 09:28 AM PDT

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