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The Divorce Process Step-by-Step

The whole idea of beginning the divorce process can be daunting to those who are unfamiliar with how it works. Knowing what to expect can help ease anxiety.

All but one state in the U.S. now offers no-fault divorce. (New York is the exception.) This means that a spouse can simply state in court that the marriage is "irretrievably broken" or that the spouses have "irreconcilable differences." More specific information is generally not required to obtain a divorce, but in making decisions about custody of the children and division of the parties' property, the court can take into consideration such things as extramarital affairs, domestic abuse, addiction and mental health issues.

Starting Divorce Proceedings

The divorce process begins when one or both spouses file a petition in court. If you have a divorce attorney (sometimes called a family law attorney), he or she will file the petition. It will usually include, or be followed by, information about the assets the couple owns, the names and ages of the children, how much money each spouse makes at work and similar information.

Also included with the petition might be a motion for temporary custody of children or similar urgent issues.

The next stage is usually discovery. This means that each side asks the other for specific information about the value of assets such as each spouse's retirement fund from work, the value of a business interest owned by one spouse and similar issues.

After discovery, each side will make a motion in court asking the judge to grant certain assets to them and to grant custody and visitation regarding the children. The more the parties agree, the more quickly the judge can make a decision. The judge will then grant the divorce and order the assets divided and settle issues of custody and visitation.

How Long Does the Divorce Process Take?

In situations where the parties agree on how to divide the assets, and custody and visitation issues regarding the children (if any), the judge will often grant the divorce (or dissolution, as many states call it) after only one or two appearances in court.

If the parties don't agree on all issues, multiple appearances in court are often necessary, as the judge appoints experts to study the issues and make recommendations to the judge. For example, if child custody and visitation are at issue, a social worker might be asked to meet with both parents and children and report back. If the value of property is at issue, the court might order a professional appraisal.

This varies from state to state and also varies depending on how much the divorcing spouses are able to agree on things like division of the property and custody of the children. The more disagreement, the longer the process takes because the court will want to hear specific evidence to decide who gets what.

Some states require a certain amount of time between the filing of the petition and when the divorce can be granted. This can be a few days in some states, up to several months in others. Many states also require than the divorcing spouses be living apart for a period of time before the divorce can be finalized.

The Uncontested Divorce Process

If you and your spouse agree to divorce and agree on the division of property, and either have no children or your children are grown (age 18 or older), you can usually file a joint petition for dissolution and a specific requested division of assets. Note that while this type of divorce is simpler than other types of divorce, it is still a good idea of hire an attorney to make sure that you don't overlook anything.