What Happens in a Divorce?

An overview of the basic divorce process.

By , Attorney · Cooley Law School

Although divorce is common throughout the United States, the divorce process varies depending on the couple's situation. Short-term marriages without children or property typically result in a less complex and time-consuming divorce than long-term marriages with significant property entanglements, marital debt, and minor children. Additionally, divorcing couples who work together to negotiate the terms of the divorce (child custody, child support, property division, debt allocation, and spousal support) will experience a less expensive and less stressful divorce than couples who can't agree or refuse to work together.

Step One: Filing the Divorce Petition

Whether both spouses agree to the divorce or not, before any couple can begin the divorce process, one spouse must file a legal petition asking the court to terminate the marriage. The filing spouse must include the following information:

  • a statement which informs the court that at least one spouse meets the state's residency requirements for divorce
  • a legal reason—or grounds—for the divorce, and
  • any other statutory information that your state requires.

Residency requirements vary depending on where you live. States typically require at least one spouse to live in the state anywhere from 3 months to 12 months, and in the county where the spouse files at least 10 days to 6 months before filing the petition. Divorcing spouses must meet the state's residency requirement before the court will accept the case.

Grounds for divorce vary from state-to-state. However, all states offer divorcing couples the option to file a no-fault divorce, meaning the filing spouse doesn't place blame on the spouse for the end of the marriage. Some states allow parties to claim "fault" for the divorce, like adultery or neglect. Because fault divorces can be more costly and take longer to resolve, you should speak with an experienced family law attorney in your state if you're considering this option.

Step Two: Asking for Temporary Orders

When you file for divorce, you may request temporary court orders on issues like child custody, child support, and spousal support (alimony) that will apply while your divorce case is ongoing. Your spouse also has the option of asking for a temporary order. For example, if you are a stay-at-home parent, you may not be able to wait until your divorce is final to get financial support from your spouse.

Unless you and your spouse agree on temporary orders, a judge will hold a hearing on the request before deciding how to rule. The judge will usually grant the temporary order quickly, and it will remain valid until a judge issues a different order finalizes the divorce.

You may also request a temporary restraining order that's mean to keep the status quo in your finances and access to your children. For example, these orders may prohibit you or your spouse from getting rid of assets, moving children out of the state without permission from the other state or the court, or changing beneficiaries on life insurance policies or retirement plans. These temporary restraining orders are automatic in some states, but you usually have to request them.

If you need a temporary order but didn't include that request with your initial divorce papers, you'll need to apply for temporary orders as quickly as possible.

Step Three: Notify Your Spouse About the Divorce

You need to make sure that you spouse has a copy of the divorce papers and a chance to respond if your spouse disagrees with anything you've requested in the petition. The procedure will depend on the rules in your state and how much you and your spouse are cooperating. For instance:

  • If you're filing for an "uncontested divorce" (meaning you and your spouse have already reached an agreement about all the issues in your divorce), and your state allows you to file a joint petition, all you have to do is make sure that both of you have copies of all the divorce papers.
  • In many states, you may simply give a copy of the divorce papers to your spouse, have your spouse sign a waiver or acknowledgment of service, and file that with the court.
  • Otherwise, you'll need to "serve" your spouse with the divorce papers, using one of the methods allowed in your state. Usually, this means arranging to have a sheriff or professional process server hand deliver the documents to your spouse. But some states allow you to mail the documents with return receipt requested. If your spouse has a lawyer, you'll need to serve the paperwork to the attorney. If you can't find your spouse, or your spouse is trying to avoid service, you'll need to check with the court on other service methods.

Typically, your spouse will then have a certain amount of time to file an answer to the divorce petition. (This may not be necessary if you're filing for an uncontested divorce.) Your spouse may agree with or object to anything in your petition, including the grounds for divorce and requests on issues like property, alimony, child custody, and child support.

If your spouse doesn't respond in time, you may be able to request a "default" divorce judgment.

Step Four: Negotiate a Settlement

If you and your spouse still disagree on issues like child custody, support, or property division after you've started the divorces, the two of you will need try to resolve those disputes. There are different ways you might reach an agreement during the divorce process:

  • Mediation. You may choose to participate in mediation with a neutral third-party who will help you talk through the issues and identify solutions both of you can live with. Some states require participation in mediation, at least on certain issues like child custody. Mediation often saves significant time and money during the divorce process, so it's often a good route for many divorcing couples.
  • Settlement conference. If you and your spouse have an attorney, your lawyers will typically try to reach a settlement through negotiation. If that hasn't happened by the time a trial is approaching, the court may schedule a settlement conference. At this conference, a judge usually meets with both spouses and their lawyers to discuss possible settlement options.

Step Five: Divorce Trial

Sometimes negotiations fail despite each spouse's best efforts. If there are still issues that remain unresolved after mediation and other talks, the parties will need to ask the court for help, which means going to trial. A divorce trial is costly and time-consuming. It also takes all the power away from the spouses and puts it in the hands of the judge. Negotiations and mediation sessions allow the couple to maintain control and have more predictable results than a divorce trial, so it's best to avoid a trial if possible.

Step Six: Finalizing the Judgment

Whether you and your spouse negotiated throughout the divorce process, or a judge decided the significant issues for you, the final step of divorce comes when the judge signs the divorce judgment or decree. The divorce judgment (sometimes called an "order of dissolution") officially ends the marriage and spells out the specifics about how you and your spouse will divide your assets and debts, allocate parenting time and responsibility for your child, and handle child support and spousal support. If you and your spouse negotiated a settlement, you'll typically submit a proposed judgment that the judge will approve and sign as the final order. But if you went through a divorce trial, the judge will write the final judgment.

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