What to Expect When Going Through a Divorce

By Heather Frances J.D.

No two divorces are exactly alike. You and your spouse may get along great, simplifying your divorce process. However, you and your spouse could dispute many details of the divorce, thereby extending the divorce process and increasing costs. Also, divorce laws vary among states, and some divorce issues vary even among judges. Thus, there is no way to know exactly what to expect when you go through divorce, but you can get an idea based on your circumstances and where you live.


When you file a divorce, you must give the court reasons, or grounds, for your divorce. Often, the simplest method for getting a divorce involves using your state's no-fault grounds, such as "irreconcilable differences" or "irretrievable breakdown of the marriage," because you don't have to provide as much evidence as you would if you use fault-based grounds. However, most states do allow fault-based grounds, such as adultery, abandonment or extreme cruelty.


Many states require or encourage mediation as part of the divorce process, particularly when custody is an issue. In some states, such as California, if you and your spouse don’t reach an agreement on a parenting plan in mediation, the mediator will recommend a parenting plan to the judge. The judge may then approve the mediator’s suggested plan and include it in the divorce decree.

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Property Distribution

Marital property is not always divided equally in a divorce. If you live in one of the 41 equitable distribution states, your marital property will be divided equitably, but not necessarily equally, so you may not receive exactly half. If you and your spouse can agree about how your property is divided, the court usually approves that distribution. However, if you don’t agree, the court will consider various factors to determine how to equitably divide your property, including the length of your marriage, age and health of you and your spouse, standard of living established during the marriage and the income and future earning capacity of you and your spouse. If you live in one of the community property states -- Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington, Wisconsin -- the court will likely split your marital property in half.

Contested Vs. Uncontested Divorce

Generally, if you and your spouse can agree on the major terms of your divorce, including child custody, property distribution and spousal support, you’ll have an uncontested divorce. Some states, like Ohio, have a simplified uncontested divorce process for couples who can agree. If either you or your spouse choose to contest, or dispute, any part of the divorce, your divorce may be longer and more complicated. The more hotly you contest divorce issues, the longer your divorce can drag out. Typically, a contested divorce requires at least one court hearing, and you may have to go through a trial with witnesses. To prepare for the court hearing, each side must go through the discovery process where you give up certain evidence and information when formally requested by your spouse.


Uncontested divorces can be fairly inexpensive, particularly if you and your spouse do the paperwork yourself and do not hire an attorney, though you still have to pay court filing fees, which vary between states and between courts. If you have a contested divorce in which you can’t agree on any terms, your expenses may include attorney fees, appraisal costs for your marital property, costs for expert witnesses and other costs to gather and present evidence to the court. If you and your spouse can agree on some items, your divorce costs will likely decrease, even if you can’t agree on everything.

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