All divorces start the same way: one partner (usually called the petitioner) files a petition for divorce with the court and the other partner (usually the respondent) is served with the complaint for divorce. This lists everything the petitioner is asking for in the divorce.
Depending on the issues involved in the marriage, the petitioner may request temporary court orders when they file, too. This way, there are some rules in place for things like child custody and visitation during the sometimes lengthy divorce process.
When the original petition for divorce is filed, a court date is set for an initial appearance. This date is usually several months after filing. Between the initial filing and the court date, couples can and should try to work out as many issues as possible.
Process for an Uncontested Divorce
If the couple can agree on every issue in the divorce, they can proceed with an uncontested divorce by completing a settlement. Though state rules vary, the couple with no disputes between them simply puts their agreement into writing (either with forms, on their own, or with help from an attorney or other professional).
Once both parties confirm to the court they agree to the terms, the judge will sign off on their terms. One brief court appearance may be necessary.
If a hearing is required, it involves the judge asking both parties some questions to make sure everyone understands the terms that they’re agreeing to.
The other process for an uncontested divorce is similar. The petitioner files the divorce papers and has them served to the respondent. The respondent then has a certain period of time (10 days to a couple of weeks) to either file a response or appear at a scheduled court appearance.
If the respondent does neither, the court evaluates what the petitioner is asking for and issues a decision. A brief hearing is usually needed.
Process for a Contested Divorce
During the time leading up to the court date, all couples should try to agree where they can. Divorces are complicated, however, and sometimes it’s impossible for both partners to agree on everything.
If, after trying to reach an agreement and possibly working with attorneys or professional mediators, the two sides can’t work everything out, then the remaining issues will have to be decided in court.
Once the two parties reach an impasse, a contested divorce proceeds a lot like other other civil trials. Both parties will gather and present evidence (including witness testimony) at a trial in support of their desired outcome.
In the end, the judge will decide how to resolve these matters and issue a binding judgment of divorce, ending the marriage.