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How your divorce plays out depends on your individual circumstances as well as your state's divorce laws.
Whether you decide to get an online divorce or not, most will follow a predictable pattern, from filing a petition to receiving a final divorce decree.
The divorce process starts when a spouse files a petition for the dissolution of marriage. The spouse who files the petition is the petitioner, while the spouse who receives the petition is the respondent.
The petition will ask the court for a divorce and state the grounds for doing so. The most common reasons are "irreconcilable differences" or "incompatibility," which offer more privacy than other options.
Once the petition has been completed, it needs to be delivered (or “served”) to the other spouse so they know about the divorce. This step is known as "service of process."
You can’t deliver the petition yourself, but anyone else over the age of 18 can serve your spouse.
Your spouse then needs to sign an acceptance of service form stating they received the papers. If your spouse is hard to find, or won't sign for the petition, you might have to hire a private process server or a local sheriff's deputy.
At this point, either spouse can also request protective orders, restraining orders, or interim orders concerning spousal or child support.
Once your spouse is served, they have 30 days to respond before a default judgment is granted in your favor.
In the rare case that you ask for a divorce on fault grounds, your spouse's response may offer a defense or dispute facts asserted in the petition. If your spouse disagrees with the division of property, proposed support or custody, or any other issue, their response should state this.
Next, both you and your spouse will have to reveal information about your assets, debts, income, and expenses. If your divorce is uncontested and both parties can agree on the terms, you won’t have to do much else.
However, if there’s a dispute over assets, custody rights, or support payments, you'll need to enter a formal discovery period followed by negotiation. During discovery, both spouses will produce financial documents.
This step may also involve mediation or other informal settlement processes to avoid a trial. For example, if custody rights are at stake, the court may order mediation, evaluation by a social worker or other professional, and/or the appointment of a guardian ad litem to represent the children.
If mediation and other out-of-court measures fail, a pretrial hearing or conference is the next step. This meeting gives both parties one last chance to settle out of court. Both sides will present their cases to a judge, who will tell the spouses how they might rule if their divorce case goes to trial.
The judge who presides at your pretrial conference or hearing is the same judge who will preside over your trial. That means you'll get a good idea of how likely it is that you'll get what you want. If you're fighting a losing battle, the pretrial conference will tell you as much.
If you and your spouse can't agree on certain elements of the divorce, you'll head to trial. Because the docket is often booked for months in advance, you could end up waiting six months or more for your trial date.
In the months preceding the trial, your divorce attorney will prepare you, your witnesses, and your evidence. That usually involves interviewing and deposing potential witnesses, preparing exhibits, and reviewing experts' reports.
Depending on how complex your case is, your trial could last anywhere from one day to several weeks.
A divorce decree—also called an order of dissolution—is issued by a judge to specify how you and your spouse will divide your property and assets, handle custody of your children, and issue any spousal or child support payments.
Generally speaking, your divorce decree is final and binding upon both parties. However, you may be able to modify some aspects of the decree, such as custody rights, visitation rights, child support, and spousal support.
Getting through the divorce process is much easier if you know what's coming. If you still have questions about the process, whether filing a petition or enforcing a divorce decree, consider talking with a divorce attorney to find out more about your specific situation.
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