How to prepare for divorce court

Understanding the major legal milestones of the divorce process is vital to reach the most efficient and streamlined outcome possible in divorce court.

Consulting with a reputable family law attorney may be an important part of the process, even if you ultimately decide to proceed without representation.

Step #1: File the initial paperwork.

First, you will need to file a complaint listing the reasons why you are seeking divorce. “Irreconcilable differences” is generally the most commonly cited reason. You will also need a financial statement, and additional documents relating to any children. If you work with a lawyer, he or she will prepare these documents for you. From there, your spouse will be served and the case will enter the discovery process.

Step #2: Prepare your evidence.

If you are facing a contested divorce, you will need to gather evidence to present at the various hearings that will take place along the way. Common issues that arise are usually related to child custody and visitation. You will need to gather not only evidence to support your position, but also evidence to refute the other spouse’s position. Evidence could include pictures, witness testimony, and even social media posts.

Step #3: Educate yourself.

Learning the divorce court language and formalities is an important aspect for litigants to consider. Common terms include:

  • Plaintiff/defendant or petitioner/respondent. The plaintiff or petitioner is the party initiating the divorce, the defendant or respondent is the other spouse
  • Jurisdiction. The county or municipality where you file for divorce.
  • Petition & summons. The petition lists what you hope to get out of the divorce, as well as any allegations against the other spouse. The summons orders the defendant to not only answer the petition, but to appear for any and all subsequent hearings
  • Counter-claim or counter-petition. A counter-claim is an allegation raised by the defendant in his or her response to the petition. This is not necessary in an uncontested divorce. A counter-petition occurs when the respondent files his is or her own original petition for divorce.
  • Pendente-lite or temporary relief. If a divorce is contested, it could drag on for longer than a year, and families need some sort of organization during that time. Pendente-lite hearings allow the judge set a plan related to financial support, custody, and property until the final decree is entered.
  • Mediation. A stepping stone to a divorce hearing, mediation allows parties to air out their grievances before a neutral third party in order to reach a settlement before going to court.
  • Discovery. A process where both sides may request documents, statements, or depositions from the other for possible use at a later trial.
  • Expert witness. A highly-educated or knowledgeable person hired to share his or her opinion on an issue related to the case. Examples may include a child psychologist or financial expert.

Step #4: Negotiate.

Many divorces will settle before going to divorce court, either through mediation or strategic negotiations between the parties. To avoid divorce court all together, be prepared negotiate with your spouse. If a negotiation is successful, the agreed-upon terms will be entered into a settlement agreement which will be included in the divorce decree and entered by the judge. If not, a hearing will be necessary, even if on just one issue.

Step #5: Prepare and practice for divorce court.

If the divorce is contested, the parties will spend several days in court working out each issue: property division, child support, alimony, visitation, custody, etc. Both parties will likely be required to testify, along with a number of witnesses familiar with the details of the parties’ situation. Testimony and documentation relating to financial information will likely take up a bulk of the divorce court process.

Step #6: Finalize your divorce decree.

The divorce court process can take up to a year or longer to conclude, if issues are contested. Financially, the process can cost anywhere from a few hundred dollars for filing fees only, to tens of thousands of dollars for attorneys’ fees, expert witnesses, etc.

All parties will end up with a final decree setting the rules of the divorce, including child custody, property ownership, and any alimony or child support amounts owed to the other party.

In very rare cases, a party may wish to appeal the divorce court decision, which will likely require additional litigation in an intermediate appellate court or the state supreme court. This will extend the timeline and costs for the process.