Divorce 101: How to Make the Process Easier and Less Stressful
Divorce is a legal process wherein a judge (or other legal authority) officially terminates a marriage. A divorce also determines ownership of jointly owned belongings, division of debt, child custody and support, and spousal support.
Both marriage and divorce rates are slowly declining in the United States, and some data suggest millennials are waiting longer to get married and couples are staying married longer. Currently, about half of marriages in the U.S. result in divorce; in fact, America has the sixth-highest divorce rate in the world. Women file for divorce more often—around 75 percent of the time—than men do. Lack of commitment is the most commonly cited reason.
Factors to understand beforehand
Some states require a mandatory separation period, and some require couples to undergo counseling. If these reconciliatory measures don't work, you'll need to take a series of steps before officially terminating your marriage.
Decide up front how you want to divide assets: community property versus equitable distribution. If you and your spouse can agree on terms and distribution, you may be able to obtain a much quicker and less expensive "uncontested divorce." All states accept no-fault cases; typically, these are denoted as stemming from "irreconcilable differences".
Steps to getting a divorce
While proceedings vary from state to state, these are the general sequential steps to dissolution of a marriage:
File a divorce petition. Whether or not you and your spouse have agreed to divorce, one person can initiate the process by filing a petition. You must demonstrate you meet the state's residency requirements and give your legal reason. Consult with a lawyer about whether filing as "fault" or "no-fault" is appropriate.
Ask for temporary orders. If waiting isn't possible—this is most common in marriages with children requiring uninterrupted support—a temporary order will approve proceedings.
Serve your spouse and wait for a response. Once one partner has filed a divorce petition, they must provide their spouse with paperwork and temporary orders (if any). Filing proof of service is an important step: You cannot proceed without it. If your spouse is noncompliant, hire someone with professional experience serving legal papers to prevent delays and frustration. The spouse served with papers (the defendant or respondent) must respond to the divorce petition within a specified amount of time or be given a default judgment. In the spouse's response, they can dispute a fault divorce or the terms, such as property, support and custody.
Negotiate a settlement. Both parties need to come to an agreement on property distribution, support and, if appropriate, child support and custody. If one spouse is unwilling, a third-party mediator can help.
Go to trial. This step is only for couples who fail to come to an agreement in negotiating a settlement. It is expensive, time-consuming and emotionally draining.
Finalize the judgment. The proceedings are finalized through a judgment of divorce or order of dissolution, which officially ends the marriage and states divorce terms, including assets, debts, support and custody.
Understand the process, the latest tax and divorce laws in your state, and prepare everything beforehand, with your spouse if you can. Know what you want to ask for but be willing to compromise. Consider legal consultations in advance. Be fair and communicate: The more you work with your spouse, the more seamlessly the process will move. An experienced divorce attorney can help keep negotiations civil. Make sure you are financially prepared, and turn paperwork around quickly.
Your lawyer will likely relate this advice to you, but we'll share it, too. Close all joint accounts before the divorce becomes final, and be sure to focus on your long-term financial stability. Keep emotions at bay until the process is over; it will make the situation easier. Be careful about the division of your primary residence and any retirement plans (current and former). These are typically some of the biggest assets and are not easy to divide.
What to avoid
Make sure not to slander your spouse on social media, and be sure to keep track of financial assets, documents and valuables during the divorce process. When it comes to your children, don't use them as leverage or speak ill of your spouse around them, because such actions can cause turmoil and instability that negatively affects kids.
In addition, be sure to heed all court orders, and separate your emotions from the reality of the situation. Speaking out of anger will only worsen the situation, and cloud your judgment. Divorce can be challenging, but preparing in advance, knowing the process and following these helpful tips can ensure a more productive and less upsetting experience.