Divorce doesn't have to be a knock-down, drag-out fight, but it can be. Your options for getting divorced usually depend on how well you and your spouse get along and whether you can work together to end your marriage in the simplest, sanest way possible. Virtually all your choices for ways to get divorced hinge on this factor, but they include other issues as well, many dependent on state law.
Not all states recognize the simplified divorce process, but those that do usually reserve them for spouses who have been married only a short period of time and who don't have children. Further requirements can vary by state. For example, Illinois requires that you own no real property together, whereas Florida simply wants you to reach a marital settlement agreement dividing all your property and debts so the court doesn't have to get involved. You might also have to waive your right to alimony. If you qualify, you and your spouse can usually end your marriage by agreement within a few months.
Fault vs. No-Fault Divorce
As of 2010, all states recognize some form of no-fault divorce, in which it's sufficient to tell the court that your marriage is over and cannot be saved. Some states, such as California, recognize only no-fault grounds. Others recognize fault-based divorce for reasons such as adultery, abandonment or cruelty. If you live in a state where you have an option, your decision to use fault or no-fault grounds doesn’t have to affect the ease with which you end your marriage, but it often does. For example, if you accuse your spouse of adultery in your divorce documents, you probably can't expect her to be cooperative when negotiating a settlement of marital issues. Additionally, most states allow your spouse to defend against fault grounds if you can't reach a settlement and trial becomes necessary. For example, your spouse can charge that you condoned her bad behavior – you continued the marital relationship after you learned of her infidelity. Sorting through evidence of fault can make for a long and contentious divorce trial, and not all states consider fault when dividing property, awarding alimony or deciding custody. The fight might all be for naught.
Contested vs. Uncontested Divorce
People sometimes confuse a no-fault divorce with an uncontested divorce, but they're not the same thing. In general, one relates to how your divorce begins and the other pertains to how your divorce ends. Your divorce is uncontested when you and your spouse agree to a marital settlement agreement and submit it to the court. This is typically done so a judge doesn’t have to decide marital issues for you, like property division and custody, at trial. It might start out as contested – you believe it's going to require court intervention because you and your spouse have widely divergent views on a number of issues – then end as uncontested if you reach an agreement somewhere along the line. If you do end up at trial and the court issues a divorce judgment or decree based on the judge's ruling, your divorce is contested.
Some states recognize limited divorces, also sometimes called divorces from bed and board. These are basically forms of legal separation; you and your spouse are still married and you can't marry anyone else. However, the court can enter an order dividing your marital property, assigning responsibility for debts, awarding maintenance or alimony, or deciding custody. This might not seem to serve any real purpose, but if divorce is problematic for you because of religious or personal reasons, a limited divorce can legally set the terms for your separation without actually severing the marriage. If your state requires that you live separate and apart for a period of time in order to qualify for a no-fault divorce, you might want to get a limited divorce first so there's a court order in effect while you wait out this requirement.