Sometimes a divorcing couple can only agree on one thing: that they want a divorce. In Florida, if you and your spouse fail to reach common ground on the terms of your divorce, the matter is referred to as "contested." Contested divorces can include a trial and involve more legal formalities than uncontested divorces. For that reason, hiring an attorney, while not required, can be helpful to make sure that you comply with the many procedural rules.
If you receive a petition from your spouse, this means that he initiated the divorce. The petition contains legal phrases, and can be difficult for non-lawyers to understand. In Florida, you must respond to the petition within 20 days with a written answer, noting any disagreement with each of your spouse's claims. You may also choose to file a counter petition if you have any counterclaims, such as a request for alimony. The answer and counter petition cannot simply be notes to the judge. You must use a specific format, including a caption, title and numbered paragraphs. Failure to properly draft and file these documents could result in your claims not being heard -- and your spouse getting everything he requested in his petition by default.
Once file your answer, the divorce moves into discovery. Discovery involves the exchange of certain mandatory financial information, including tax returns, bank and credit card statements, and other proof-of-income documents. Attorneys can be useful at this stage in determining what you need and don't need to disclose. Further, if your spouse refuses to provide the appropriate documents, you may need to file a written motion to compel the court to take action. Like all court papers, these motions must follow a specific format and include references to Florida law.
During discovery, you may need to formally ask your spouse for additional information. These queries may be in the form of a written "request to produce," which asks for a specific piece of evidence, such as an appraisal, or in the form of a deposition, which gives you an opportunity to ask your spouse's witnesses questions to prepare your case for trial. Each type of request has unique requirements under Florida law and can be difficult to draft without the assistance of an attorney.
Once discovery closes, the court orders mediation. If you cannot work out a settlement through mediation, the next step is trial. At trial, the court will rule on all of the divorce matters after giving you an opportunity to present your evidence and witnesses -- and to address the evidence and witnesses presented by your spouse. Florida has specific rules for how evidence can be admitted and the procedure for examining and cross-examining witnesses. Many people choose to hire an attorney for court appearances, as failure to follow these rules could result in the judge overlooking important evidence or testimony necessary to establish your claims.