When your wife files for divorce, you'll probably hear from a lot of well-meaning friends who have been through it themselves and want to tell you what to expect. The problem with this is that no two divorces are exactly alike, and the rules and laws governing divorce can vary from state to state. However, the basic steps of the divorce process are usually similar no matter where you live.
Time to Respond
After your wife files for divorce, she'll have the papers served on you. Depending on the rules in your state and whether your divorce is amicable, she may give them to you herself and have you sign an acknowledgment or waiver of service. Otherwise, she might have a private process server or the sheriff deliver them to you. Once you receive them, you have a limited period of time in which to respond, usually about a month. If you don't file a response with the court within this time, your wife can usually obtain a default judgment against you. This means she'll probably get everything she asked for in her divorce papers and you won't be permitted to defend yourself against her requests.
In some states, such as California, filing a divorce petition automatically puts temporary orders in place while your divorce is pending. However, these automatic orders usually just limit you and your wife from selling assets, canceling insurance or removing your children from the state. If you or your wife need more than that, such as temporary custody or support terms, you can ask the court for other temporary orders to govern the situation until your divorce is final. This usually involves filing a motion and a court hearing so a judge can decide your requests.
Discovery and Negotiations
Discovery involves the exchange of documentation with your spouse to ascertain the extent of your marital assets, debts and income. Your wife's lawyer – if she's hired one – might require you to answer interrogatories, which are written questions you must answer and sign under oath. The attorney might also want to depose you. Depositions are similar to interrogatories, except you must answer the questions in person with a court reporter recording what you say. Both interrogatories and depositions are admissible evidence if you go to trial. Before trial becomes a possibility, however, you or your lawyers can use the information gathered through discovery to try to reach a settlement. If your divorce is uncontested and you and your wife are both knowledgeable about your assets, you can usually skip this part of the process.
Some states, such as Florida, require that you and your wife attend mediation if your divorce is contested. In mediation, a third party will try to help you negotiate a settlement. The court may require mediation even if your lawyers are trying to reach a settlement as well. Other states reserve mandatory mediation for custody issues. If you reach an agreement, you can usually have it written up and submit it to the court to end your marriage.
Final Hearing or Trial
Your divorce culminates with either a final hearing or a trial. If you and your wife reach a settlement agreement, the final hearing usually only involves some brief testimony indicating that you entered into the agreement voluntarily. Trials are much more contentious and complicated. They involve witnesses and physical evidence, such as the documentation you gathered in discovery, as you and your wife both try to convince the judge to rule in your favor regarding issues you don't agree on. If trial is necessary, you may have to attend a pretrial hearing or conference so the judge or a court official can determine exactly what aspects of your divorce are in dispute.