Complete Guide to Divorce
Your divorce options explained plus a 10-part checklist to get and keep you on track.
Going through a divorce can be one of the most disruptive and emotional events in your life. The process can be confusing, lengthy, and expensive — and it’s normal to feel overwhelmed. Here’s some basic information to help: A guide to the different paths through divorce, and a checklist of things to consider and prepare as you get ready for divorce. (And when you want more information, just click on the links we provided to our in-depth articles on the topics mentioned here.) The Different Paths Through Divorce
There isn’t only one way to get divorced, and the process doesn’t have to involve court fights and huge legal fees. Depending on your circumstances—including the complexity of your property and finances, whether you have children at home, how much you and your spouse can cooperate, and your willingness to do some legwork—you can choose a path through divorce that will save you time, money, and headaches.
At the outset, you should know that the paths discussed here aren’t mutually exclusive. For instance, you can get an uncontested divorce all on your own or with the help of online divorce, mediation, or lawyers. Similarly, you can use mediation with or without an online divorce service, and with or without legal representation. But it helps to know your basic options.
Uncontested vs. Contested Divorce
Divorces generally fall into one of two camps: uncontested and contested. In an uncontested divorce, the spouses reach agreement on all of their divorce-related issues, so they don’t have to go through all the lengthy legal battles typically involved in a contested divorce.
When we talk about uncontested divorce, we usually mean that the couple has already reached a complete divorce settlement agreement (sometimes called a “marital settlement agreement” or similar terms) by the time they file for divorce. But couples often start out the process without an agreement and eventually settle their disputes (usually with the help of mediation, lawyers, or both) before they go to trial. That would also technically be an uncontested divorce, but it isn’t what we’re referring to here.
Most states offer procedures and forms for uncontested divorces that are at least somewhat easier to navigate and quicker to get through. And in some states, there are even more streamlined procedures (often called “simplified divorce” or “summary dissolution”) if you meet certain qualifications, like limits on property and children.
Finding the Divorce Forms
You can usually find your court’s free divorce forms online. A search of your local court’s website might turn up all the forms and instructions. If your local court’s website doesn’t have the forms you need, check the main website for all of the courts in your state. (You can usually find the relevant site by searching for your state’s name and “courts”. Courts often have a separate page or section for divorce or family law.) You can also go to the local court clerk’s office if you can’t find what you’re looking for online.
Court clerks can’t give you legal advice, but most will help you find the paperwork you need. Many courts provide free divorce packets in person (or online); others maintain self-help centers where you can pick up the necessary forms for filing for divorce and instructions on submitting them. In some courts, you might even be able to meet with a family law facilitator — a court staff member whose job is to assist people who are representing themselves in a divorce.
Your state or county court might or might not provide a form for a settlement agreement. Sometimes, you’ll need to include the provisions of the agreement in the divorce petition or another form for the proposed divorce judgment. If your county or state requires you to submit a settlement agreement for an uncontested divorce and doesn’t provide a form, you might need to get help elsewhere. Some online divorce services will provide and complete these forms, and some mediators will help prepare a written document based on the agreement you reached during mediation.
Filing and Serving the Divorce Papers
Once you complete the paperwork, which will take some time, you’ll need to bring the original and two copies to the courthouse to begin your case. (Some courts allow you to file your divorce papers electronically.)
Most courts require you to pay a filing fee to begin processing your divorce case, unless you apply and qualify for a waiver based on your inability to pay. Filing fees vary by state (and sometimes by county). You can find out how much you’ll need to pay by checking your local court’s website or asking your local court clerk.
Usually, the spouse who files the initial paperwork must have it delivered to the other spouse through what’s known as “service of process.” The other spouse often is then required to file a response to the divorce petition or complaint. Some states allow you to skip one or both of these steps if the other spouse signs a waiver, or if you’re filing under a streamlined procedure that allows the two of you to file the divorce petition together.
Online Divorce Services
For couples who agree on the issues in their divorce but don’t have the time to hunt down and fill out all the right forms—or are concerned about making mistakes and missing requirements—an online divorce service can be an affordable alternative.
Online divorce services usually cost between $150 and $900. The total fee will depend on what the company offers, what your state allows, and the extra services you choose. Typically, online divorce services will provide you with all of the state-specific divorce forms you’ll need (along with instructions), with most of the forms completed based on your answers to a questionnaire.
Then, you’ll usually file the paperwork with the court. Some services take care of the filing for an extra fee, and some guarantee that you’ll get your money back if the court doesn’t accept your paperwork.
If you need help beyond filing your paperwork, many online divorce services offer additional assistance for a fee, such as consultations with an attorney or instructions for preparing parenting plans.
You can use mediation at any point in the divorce proceeding, right up to the eve of trial. But if you do it before you file and
When your attempts to work things out with your spouse have failed, you might still have an option that’s less expensive than the traditional contested divorce. In divorce mediation, a trained, neutral professional meets with both of you to guide you through the process of identifying and negotiating solutions to your disagreements.
are able to work out a complete agreement, you’ll be able to take advantage of the relative ease and cost savings of filing for an uncontested divorce.
Some states or judges will require you to participate in mediation after you’ve filed for divorce if you still have contested issues—especially if you and your spouse haven’t been able to agree on custody and parenting time. When a judge has ordered you to mediate, you will usually have the option of using free (or low-cost) mediation services through the court.
Whether you go to mediation voluntarily or are required to give it a try, you can always choose a private mediator. Private mediators in contested divorces have traditionally been pricey, because the mediation sessions can last for days. And if you and your spouse have attorneys, you’ll also pay their hourly fees for consulting or participating in the mediation. However, you can often save money by paying for just a few hours of mediation, either in person or online (and you don’t need to have an attorney present). It’s almost always less expensive to work through your disagreements in mediation than to hash them out with lawyers, motions, and court hearings.
If you’re able to work out some or all of the issues in your divorce through mediation, many mediators and mediation services will prepare a written document that reflects your agreement. When your settlement agreement covers all the issues in your divorce, you will typically present it at a final court hearing (although in some states, you can simply submit the signed agreement along with your final paperwork and have it approved by a judge).
Divorce With Lawyers
There are many reasons you might decide that you need or want a lawyer to handle your divorce. But hiring a divorce attorney doesn’t have to be an all-or- nothing proposition. There are different ways of getting legal help with the divorce process.
Full Legal Representation in Divorce
In some situations, you should get an experienced family law attorney to handle your divorce if at all possible (more on that below, in the checklist). If you can afford it, you might also simply want the peace of mind that comes from having a professional—who knows the ins and outs of your state’s laws, regulations, and court procedures— take care of all the legal details.
If you need a lawyer but can’t afford it, you might be able to get help through your state’s legal aid service. Some legal aid organizations provide attorneys to assist clients throughout their divorces, especially in cases where there is an extreme need—for example, when there is spousal or child abuse. Alternatively, your local legal aid organization might be able to set you up with an attorney who is willing to handle your case pro bono (for free). You can also contact your local state bar association for a referral to local attorneys who might take your case pro bono. (For more information, read up on legal aid and pro bono representation, and how to find it.)
Limited Representation by an Attorney
You can get legal help without having an attorney represent you from start to finish in your divorce case. You might be able to work with a lawyer on an as-needed basis.
For example, if you’ve filled out the divorce forms you found on your court’s website, you might consider making an appointment with an attorney to go over the paperwork and explain the divorce process to you before you file. Or, if you and your spouse have reached an agreement on the issues in your divorce, you can hire an attorney to draft or review your marital settlement agreement before you submit it to the court.
Hiring an attorney to assist you in a limited way is far less expensive than having full representation for the duration of your divorce, and paying for an hour or two of a lawyer’s time can help you avoid costly mistakes.
If you file for divorce and properly serve the paperwork, but your spouse doesn’t respond in the time allowed, you can request a default divorce. Generally (but not always), this would mean that the judge would grant you a divorce based on whatever you requested in your divorce petition. Default divorce is an option if your spouse won’t cooperate, but some couples decide at the outset to take this route.
However, you should know that there are pros and cons to getting a default divorce. So unless you’re using a special procedure for a default divorce with a marital settlement agreement (allowed in some states), you should speak with a lawyer before taking this path.
Important divorce-related issues typically include:
If you and your spouse can agree on all of the issues in your case, you can probably handle your divorce without a lawyer. You might consider using a DIY divorce service that provides the necessary forms for your state and helps you create a marital settlement agreement (MSA). Once you’ve put all the issues you’ve agreed on into a marital settlement agreement template, you can both sign it and submit it to the court.
If you can’t agree on all the issues but are close to an agreement, a private mediator might be able to help you across the finish line. Mediators can often assist couples in finalizing their divorce judgment together.
If you can’t agree on all of the issues and you’re not even close, you might need to pursue a divorce trial. Also, you should get outside help if you’ve experienced domestic violence (more on that topic below).
No state requires you to hire a lawyer for your divorce. But there are some circumstances that making having a lawyer critical, such as when:
As discussed above, you can have a lawyer handle the entire divorce or just certain tasks. For instance, it can make sense for the spouses to consult separate lawyers before beginning the divorce process or before signing off on the MSA. Hiring attorneys will certainly increase your divorce cost, but in the end, it can also save you stress and protect your rights.
If you do decide to hire a lawyer, you’ll have to find your own attorney—you can’t use your spouse’s lawyer in your divorce. Family law attorneys can’t represent both spouses in a divorce case.
Divorcing parents have a lot to think about, but here’s a good way to start.
including each parent’s visitation with the children, holiday and school break schedules, and other special occasions.
issues with communication, transportation (if applicable), canceled visits, and expenses you’ve paid.
Start a documents file by gathering paperwork related to your marriage and estate planning.
living wills, trust documents, powers of attorney, and advance healthcare directives.
Identify all the important financial paperwork you’ll need.
accounts, stocks, bonds, and anything else you believe the court will want to see. Even though courts require both spouses to provide
full financial disclosures, not all spouses make the process easy, so gathering as much information as possible now will help you in the process later. Be sure to be as detailed and accurate as you can be, and don’t exclude anything, even if you’re not sure it’s relevant. Look for all types of account statements, such as brokerage, checking, and savings accounts.
the box’s location.
Add these additional important documents to your file:
over the family’s finances, so if you’re the “out spouse,” make sure to get access to your joint accounts before you tell your spouse you want a divorce.
7 Take Steps to Separate Your Financial Lives
Starting a life of your own comes with a bunch of to-dos. Here are some of the most important.
name. However, check your state laws first, because if you open a credit card while you’re still married, a court may consider this to be a community or joint credit card. Once you are separated, though, opening a new account in your own name will help you maintain your credit after the divorce.
account in your name only. Again, check your state laws to figure out if you should wait until you are formally separated before opening a bank account in your name only. Establishing a new bank account will help you keep track of your finances and the account will be readily available for you to use once the judge finalizes the divorce. It’s important that you do not move your direct deposit to your new account until your lawyer (if you hire one) or the court tells you to. In many states, both spouses’ earnings are joint property, and removing those funds from joint accounts could later impact your divorce.
passwords to any social media accounts in your name, especially if you think your spouse might access this information to use against you in the divorce.
get a P.O. box in your name so you can receive
allow you to have your lawyer send mail to their address.
unemployed, you can start the process of looking for health care on the Affordable Care Act website or contact your local Health and Human Services Department to determine if you qualify for state assistance.
these items with a family member, but be sure to disclose them in the financial or other disclosures when the court or opposing attorney asks. Make sure you include any inheritances from before and during the marriage.
plans until after the judge finalizes the divorce. You should update your documents as soon as allowed, though. Additionally, if you have powers of attorney that grant your spouse the right to make medical or financial decisions for you if you’re incapacitated, but you no longer want your spouse to have that authority, you will need to update your paperwork. Speak with an attorney if you’re unsure how to change these important legal documents.
8 Decide Your Living Arrangements
Many divorcing couples can’t afford to pay two mortgages or double rent and instead decide to stay in the same home throughout the divorce. If living together isn’t an option, you will need to decide which spouse will remain in the marital
home while the divorce is pending in court. (Here are some issues to consider.) If you can’t agree, you might need to ask the court to allow you exclusive use of the home until the judge decides how to divide the property later.
In many cases, if there are minor children, the primary caretaker of the children will remain in the home to ensure stability for the children. If you believe your spouse will stay in the marital home throughout the divorce process, you should begin looking for a place to stay as quickly as possible. But you might want to speak with an attorney before leaving the marital home to make sure you’re not giving up your right to the property.
It’s not unusual for one spouse to work while the other stays home to care for minor children. However, a divorce is the fastest way to realize that living on a single income is difficult, especially in today’s world. If you’re unemployed and have the skills to find employment and begin earning an income, you should start the search immediately.
If you have special circumstances that prevent you from working, like your health or caring for a young or special needs child, you may need to ask your spouse for temporary spousal support or temporary child support while the divorce is pending—or ask the court to order it if your spouse won’t agree.
If your child is very young and finding child care is going to be more expensive than any income you might possibly make, you might want to ask for ongoing alimony. For example, if you have a newborn and few job skills, going out to get a job earning minimum wage and paying a lot for infant care likely doesn’t make financial sense—and probably isn’t in your child’s best interests. If you and your spouse can’t agree on support, a judge will determine this on a case-by-case basis.
Abuse can take many forms. If you’ve been subjected to violence or bullying, take these steps.
prevent your spouse from harming you. (See Nolo’s list of Resources for Crime Victims for ways to get help.) It would help if you also gathered the support you need from professionals, family, and friends.
or over the phone. Some victims might use the same device, network, or phone plan as the abuser, allowing the abuser to see the victim’s search or call history or otherwise track their activity. Many smart devices contain cameras or GPS tracking that can be used to locate and monitor your whereabouts. An abuser can even slip a small tracking device in your car, bag, pocket, or other belongings without your knowledge. If you’re concerned about your privacy while searching online, several organizations provide assistance and resources, including National Domestic Violence Hotline and RAINN.
and the actions you took (if any), and get copies of any police records.
Getting Through the Process
Simply gathering all the necessary information for a divorce—let alone navigating the actual divorce process—might seem impossible. You can do it, though, just like so many others have. Know that it all won’t happen at once, and take just one step at a time.
Regardless of the path you choose—handling your own divorce, getting online help, or working with professionals like mediators or lawyers—use your checklist and your support network. You can get through the process and come out better on the other side of it.