What to Expect in a Contested Divorce

by Matthew Derrringer

When a couple cannot come to an agreement in a divorce case, a contentious and expensive process is likely to begin. This process may be long, you may have to appear in court and testify, and you should expect to pay more than you would like to in attorney fees.

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Temporary Orders and Mediation

After the divorce petition is filed, temporary orders are usually required with regard to children and finances. In cases involving children, for example, temporary orders for custody, support and visitation arrangements are often made. Other couples may need an immediate court order regarding exclusive use of the marital home. Although these temporary orders are sometimes made without all of the facts due to the rushed nature of the decisions, the orders given by the court usually stay in effect until the final divorce decree is issued. In some states, disputes can trigger a requirement to attend mediation. When mediation is ordered, the couple and their attorneys attempt to reach an agreement outside of court. This is done in the presence of a neutral third party, who oversees and facilitates discussions.


The next step is the discovery process. Attorneys for each side seek a large amount of information, including the details about the other spouse’s financial holdings, debt obligations and retirement accounts. This information can be obtained through interrogatories, which are essentially a list of questions each side wants answered. The questions have to be very specific, and these can trigger more fighting if someone feels the questions are unnecessary or excessive. If you and your spouse cooperate and provide requested information, more formal discovery techniques such as depositions are not needed.

Struggle for Settlement

As the discovery process unfolds, and sometimes lasting all the way up to the moments before trial, the attorneys for the divorcing spouses are usually engaged in intense efforts to reach an out-of-court settlement. Structured, formal settlement conferences and pretrial proceedings are common during a contested divorce, because a trial is considered a last resort, but the productivity of these sessions usually depends on whether you and your spouse can cooperate to reach a settlement.


As the last resort, and last step, of a contested divorce, a trial takes place. You and your spouse lay out evidence for the court to come to a decision. The court can decide on issues of child custody and support, alimony, visitation schedules and property division. Both sides will each have the opportunity to call witnesses and present documents to help bolster their assertions. Once the court has heard all of the evidence, a divorce decree will be issued.