Divorce Sequence of Events

By John Stevens J.D.

Although the specific details of the divorce process vary among states, the basic framework is virtually identical. Not every divorce has to be complicated and a substantial number of couples navigate the divorce process with little conflict. Some divorce cases, however, can last for several years and be extremely complicated. If you suspect your divorce could become complicated, you may want to speak with an attorney before beginning the process.

Petition or Complaint

The divorce process begins with the filing of a petition or, in some states, a complaint. Typically, only one spouse can file the petition. In the petition, the filing spouse discloses when the couple was married, whether they have any minor children together and what property was acquired before and during the marriage. If the state requires a reason for allowing the divorce, commonly referred to as the "grounds" for divorce, the petition must state the reason. The filing spouse also makes a request for custody and visitation arrangements for any minor children.

Response or Answer

After the petition is filed and a copy of the paperwork is delivered to the other spouse, the other spouse has the opportunity to file his own set of paperwork. Some states refer to this paperwork as the response, while others call it an answer. The answer includes the same information as the petition, but this set of paperwork allows the other spouse to disagree with the statements in the petition. The opposing spouse has only a limited time in which to file a response. The time varies by state. If the other spouse does not file a response, the spouse who filed the petition can file a second set of paperwork that asks the judge to automatically grant the divorce while adopting everything in the petition as true.

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Mediation / Settlement Conference

After the petition and response have been filed, many states require couples to attend mediation. Mediation is an informal meeting between both spouses and a neutral party, often a retired judge, that is designed to give the couple an opportunity to resolve their differences without going to trial. Some states refer to this meeting as a settlement conference. If the couple resolves their differences, they are said to have “settled.” The couple must then submit a settlement agreement to the court for the judge’s signature


If the couple is unable to reach an agreement, the next step in the process is trial. A trial allows each side to present its version of the facts before a judge and have the judge make a final decision regarding the case. The judge will consider only those issues on which the couple disagrees. At the conclusion of the trial, the judge will render a decision about the disputed matters.

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What Happens If Divorce Papers Go Unsigned?


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Motion Vs. Petition

The divorce process can involve significant paperwork. Most jurisdictions require the parties to first make all important requests to the court in writing. This provides the judge with an opportunity to review both sides of the issues before holding a hearing or ruling on the matter. These requests are known as either petitions or motions, depending on their purpose and when in the case they are filed.

How Can a Petitioner Drop a Divorce?

If you file for divorce and later change your mind, you can ask the court to drop the case. The legal term for this action is "dismissing" your petition for divorce before it is finalized. The procedure for dismissal will depend on your state's laws as well as your spouse's response to the request. Since filing for divorce does not change your marital status, the effect of a dismissal is simply a removal of the case from the court's docket.

Can a Wisconsin Judge Order Marriage Counseling Before Granting a Divorce?

The procedures for divorce in Wisconsin are similar to those of other states. One of the spouses must file an initial petition; the couple must also draw up a marital settlement agreement and attend a public hearing. State law allows only for "irretrievable breakdown" of the marriage as valid grounds for divorce. In the interest of avoiding divorce, if possible, Wisconsin also permits the presiding judge to recommend or order marriage counseling.

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