There are two primary ways to terminate a marriage, either through divorce proceedings or in a dissolution of marriage proceeding. The two methods have similarities: both are conducted in front of a judge or magistrate in the common pleas court of the county in which they are filed; both can be accomplished with the assistance of a licensed attorney or without representation, or pro se; and both will result in the legal termination of the marriage. The process, however, is very different.

A dissolution occurs when the parties are in agreement concerning all aspects of the termination of the marriage. There is no formal testimony and the parties are generally only required to appear in court one time. If the parties can agree, they petition the court for a dissolution of marriage and file a separation agreement. The separation agreement has the terms of the dissolution which include the division of all property, any spousal support to be paid and, if there are minor children of the marriage, the custody arrangement, parenting time, child support to be paid, and the designation of the residential parent and legal custodian of the children. Once filed, the court will schedule a hearing during which both parties will be required to testify to the court that they agree with the terms of the separation agreement and wish to be divorced. The court does retain authority to modify the separation agreement if minor children are involved, and will do so if the parenting provisions in the separation agreement do not appear to be in the best interests of the children.

A divorce, commonly referred to as a “contested divorce," usually occurs when the parties disagree over terms of the termination of the marriage. Divorce can be an emotional time and the parties are often bitter towards one another, so reaching an agreement can be difficult. A divorce is more time-consuming and significantly more expensive than a dissolution. The two most common issues of contention between the parties are child custody and division of property. When the parties are unable to reach an agreement, one party will file a complaint against the other party alleging the reasons for divorce. The most common reason for divorce is incompatibility, however either party can state grounds for the divorce in their complaint. The other party is served and files a response to the complaint.

Once these documents are filed with the court, the divorce moves into the discovery process. During discovery, each party uses the rules of the local court and Rules of Civil Procedure to obtain information that will support their argument regarding the issue[s] being contested. This discovery can include subpoenas, depositions, admissions, interrogatories and a variety of other methods of obtaining information from the other party or third parties, such as employers. It is also not uncommon for the court to issue orders during this time, such as civil protection orders, financial restraining orders and temporary child and spousal support orders.

Upon the completion of discovery, the parties will have a trial. During the trial, each party will present evidence of their claim to the court in the form of documents, photographs, transcripts of depositions, video and audiotapes and direct testimony. These trials can last only a few hours or several days. Once each party has presented their evidence, the common pleas judge will rule on the matters in contention. After the ruling, the judge will issue a divorce decree that includes the resolution of the matters at issue.