When you decide to divorce, it's natural to feel some fear and uncertainty. It's worse if you have no experience with the divorce process and don't know what's involved. The general divorce process has a very clear progression that varies little from state to state. Once you understand how it works, you'll have the knowledge you need to proceed with greater confidence.
Petition for Divorce
Your divorce begins with the filing of a petition for divorce. Some jurisdictions refer to this filing as a complaint rather than a petition. Either way, it's the document that starts the process. It identifies you and your spouse, states that you want a divorce, and provides the grounds, or reason why you want the divorce. In some states, such as Illinois, the law provides both fault and no-fault grounds. You must cite at least one ground in your petition.
Serving Your Spouse
Once you file the petition, you must also serve it on your spouse. Along with the petition, you generally serve another form, typically called the summons, which instructs your spouse how long he has to respond to the petition. Each state has different requirements for lawful service, but generally, you can give your paperwork to the process service division of your local sheriff's office, or hire a private process server to serve your spouse. Once the petition is served, the sheriff or process server files a paper called a return of service, which is proof that your spouse received the paperwork.
Response and Interim Support
After your spouse receives your petition he has a window of time in which to file a response. In Minnesota and Illinois for example, the window is 30 days. After the time window closes, you both might have to appear in court for a hearing where the court decides whether one of you will pay temporary support, which can include child support, maintenance and marital expenses, during the progression of the rest of the divorce.
Discovery and Financial Affidavit
The next step in the divorce process is discovery, where you and your spouse may exchange a list of questions about the case, many of them financial. Most courts require each spouse to file a financial affidavit, which contains detailed financial information.
Reaching a Settlement
Each spouse also puts together a proposed property settlement and parenting plan -- and then you compare them. With some cooperation, you can hopefully reach a negotiated settlement, which the judge can just approve and sign. If not, you may be required to attend a pretrial conference where the judge indicates how he thinks the case should be settled. In some states, such as Florida, the judge may order you and your spouse to attend mediation to give settlement another try with the help of a certified family law mediator.
Going to Trial
If no settlement is reached, your case goes to trial. At trial, both you and your spouse have your chance to present evidence supporting why you should get the assets, support and/or custody arrangements you each requested. At the end of trial, the judge decides the final division of assets, spousal support, and child custody and support.