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How & Where to File Divorce Papers

When you're ready to start divorce proceedings, you'll need to complete your state's specific divorce papers. To file, you'll have to submit these papers to the appropriate division of your local family court. There are several steps to the process.

Meet the Residency Requirements

Each state has specific rules that define the eligibility requirements for divorce. To discourage people from relocating to states with more favorable divorce laws, most states require people to reside there for a specific period of time before filing divorce papers. Residency requirements vary from state to state. In a few states, you are entitled to file for divorce if you are present in the state, even if it is not your permanent residence. Most states, however, require you to permanently reside there for a minimum period of time before you are eligible to file for divorce.

If you live in one state and your spouse lives elsewhere, you'll want to talk to divorce attorneys in each state to evaluate where you can file for divorce. Divorce lawyers can also help you evaluate whether there are advantages to filing for divorce in one state over another state.

Complete the Complaint or Petition

Once you've met the state residency requirements, you'll have to complete the formal documentation asking the court to grant you a divorce. This request is usually called a complaint or petition, depending on state law.

An experienced divorce lawyer can create the petition or complaint and handle the filing of divorce papers. If you are not using an attorney, your state's divorce court may have forms and/or sample complaints (or petitions) available on its website. The court should also provide instructions that explain how to file divorce papers.

Once You've Filed Divorce Papers

After you've filed divorce papers with the appropriate court, you'll have to have the divorce papers served on your spouse. This is an official way of letting your spouse know that you've filed for divorce. The notice explains what you're asking for in the divorce and tells your spouse how long he or she has to respond.

Courts have specific requirements for how someone must be notified and will require proof that your spouse received the divorce papers. If you've hired a divorce lawyer, your attorney should take care of this step for you. If you're handling this aspect of your divorce yourself, ask the court what methods of service are acceptable. Some courts may require that the divorce papers be handed to your spouse in person, and that your spouse sign a form acknowledging the documents have been received. (You can hire the local sheriff's office or professional process server to do this for you.) Other courts may permit you to mail the documents via first-class or certified mail. If you are unable to locate or serve your spouse with the divorce papers, the court may permit you to publish an announcement of the divorce petition in the local newspaper where your spouse is likely to be living.