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Divorce | Family

How To Start the Divorce Process

10 min read
Unbundled Legal Help

by Unbundled Legal Help

If you are considering divorce due to marital issues, you will want as much information as you can get about how to start the divorce process. While the process varies greatly depending on the state where you live and the circumstances of your divorce, there are commonalities among most divorces. 

When starting the divorce process, it is important to understand your state’s laws. One of those is whether or how long you have to be legally separated before filing for divorce. After filing your petition, you are required to serve your spouse, wait for a response, negotiate, and attend all the hearings. Finally, you wait for a judge’s approval or the final ruling.

Common factors that influence the complexity of the divorce process include the amount of time you were married, child custody issues, whether there are significant assets/debts, etc. We can connect you today with a divorce lawyer in your area from our network of lawyers

Learn more below about how to start the divorce process. 

Things You Should Do before You Start the Divorce Process

Before filing for divorce, there are a few things you should do. Being well-prepared before you petition the courts will save you time, money, and a lot of stress. The following tips help you to be better prepared and increase the likelihood of a positive outcome in your case. 

  • Be sure that you want to get a divorce
  • Interview multiple attorneys
  • Prepare all of your financial documents 
  • Develop your goals for child custody, asset/debt distribution, spousal support, etc. 
  • Plan your living situation 
  • Create a marital balance sheet
  • Develop a supportive network (i.e., family, friends, mental health professionals)

Contested vs. Uncontested Divorce

If a divorce is contested, it means that spouses cannot agree on one or more important divorce-related issues without the help of the courts. Contested divorces are usually more complex, time-consuming, and expensive. If a contested divorce is not settled, couples leave the final decision on important matters up to a judge. 

On the other hand, an uncontested divorce means that both parties agree to all terms of the divorce. That allows them to skip steps they would otherwise have to take such as discovery, trial, and other legal procedures. Furthermore, an uncontested divorce typically leads to lower legal fees. 

While the uncontested divorce process is easier, it is not always the quickest option. Some states require couples to wait 30 - 90 days before their divorce can be finalized. Check with your family law lawyer and research your state’s requirements. 

How To File for a Contested Divorce

Though there are some differences, filing for a contested divorce is relatively the same in each state. Steps to file for divorce typically include the filing procedure, petition for temporary orders, serving the paperwork to your spouse, negotiations, trial (including discovery), and the final decision. 

Learn more about each step below. 

1. File for Divorce

Regardless of whether the divorce is contested or uncontested, one spouse from the marriage must file a petition to the court asking for their marriage to be terminated. The petitioning spouse must include their reason (grounds) for divorce, other relevant information, and prove that at least one of the spouses meets the state’s residency requirements. 

Specific grounds for divorce can vary depending on the state where you live. All states offer the option of filing a no-fault divorce. No-fault divorces are granted on the grounds of irreconcilable differences, incompatibility, or an irretrievable breakdown of the marriage. 

Many states require that couples observe a period of separation (waiting period) of six months to one year before a no-fault divorce can be granted. 

2. Ask for Temporary Orders

Since some divorces take more than a year to be finalized, judges understand that waiting so long may not be possible for everyone. Therefore, you can file for temporary orders at the same time that you file for divorce (in most cases). These orders can include issues such as spousal support, child custody/support, division of property, etc. 

Temporary orders are only effective until a final order is issued. In most cases, a temporary order cannot be modified or appealed. Furthermore, temporary orders often take precedence in divorce cases. It is in your best interest to consult with an attorney before you attend the hearing because the judge’s ruling will have a major impact on the rest of your case. 

3. Serve Your Spouse and Wait for a Response

After you have filed for divorce and temporary orders (if necessary), you are required to serve a copy of the paperwork to your spouse. In most cases, it is best to use a professional process serving company or your divorce attorney to do so. You will also be required to provide the court with a “proof of service.” 

The spouse who receives paperwork (the “respondent”) must file a reply to the courts within the time their state requires. Failure to do so could result in a default judgment against them. 

Within the response, they have the option to dispute the declared grounds for divorce (if a fault divorce). They can also make assertions about child custody, spousal support, etc. 

4. Negotiate with Your Ex

If the divorce is contested, spouses have an opportunity to negotiate and reach a settlement agreement even after the paperwork is filed. You can choose to engage in informal negotiations with your spouse and/or attend mediation sessions. 

In some cases, a judge may order mediation or at least schedule a settlement conference to discuss the divorce and potential settlement agreements. Sometimes, couples prefer to wait until after the discovery process is completed before they begin negotiations. 

Discovery allows each spouse to review important financial information and other divorce-related information from their spouse. If you and your spouse can reach an agreement before your trial begins, you can save yourself a lot of time and money. 

5. Go to Trial 

It’s not always possible to reach a settlement agreement with your spouse. Couples that are unable to resolve divorce-related issues on their own or with the help of mediation are more likely to go to trial. Going to trial means that you are giving the power to make important decisions about your life, your children, and your finances to a judge. 

Additionally, the information presented in divorce cases becomes public knowledge. This is another reason why many couples choose to reach a settlement agreement outside of court so they can maintain their privacy. 

6. Finalized Judgment

A divorce does not become legal until a final ruling is made by a family court judge or they have approved a settlement agreement. The final judgment (also called “order of dissolution”) legally ends the marriage and details each spouse’s responsibilities in the divorce (custodial, financial, asset/debt distribution, etc.) 

Can Final Judgements Be Changed?

Contrary to what the name suggests, a final judgment can be changed. Couples that wish to revise their divorce decree must petition the courts for a modification or seek an appeal. It is important to note that appeals are typically not available to couples that file an uncontested divorce. Learn more about the divorce decree modification and appeals process below. 

Modification of a Divorce Decree

Depending on the state where you live and the language in your divorce decree, you may have an option to modify your divorce decree. You can potentially modify areas of your divorce decree like child support, custody, spousal support, debt allocation, etc. 

However, the court will usually require you to prove there has been a significant change in circumstances for it to grant a modification. Examples can include:

  • Major changes in the finances of either party 
  • Changes that impact your child
  • Relocation of one or both parents 
  • Revised state laws or requirements

If you believe that you are going to violate any of the orders in your divorce decree due to an inability to meet your obligations, it may be in your best interest to seek a modification as quickly as possible. Be sure to consult with a knowledgeable divorce lawyer in your area before doing so. 


Once the divorce is finalized, both spouses have an opportunity to appeal decisions made by the family court judge presiding over their case. While it is possible to mount a successful appeal, it is not likely. To have the ruling overturned, you are required to prove that the court made a legal and/or a procedural error. 

Needless to say, this can be a difficult and potentially expensive task. In most situations, seeking to modify the divorce decree is more likely to yield a successful outcome as compared to an appeal. 

Is the Divorce Process Different if I Have Children? 

Yes, an otherwise uncomplicated divorce can become much more complex when children are involved. For starters, it can make negotiations more contentious. Furthermore, you and your spouse will be required to agree to a parenting plan (or have a judge rule on one). This can take much more time. 

When judges consider settlement agreements or issue a final ruling, their main priority is to ensure that the best interest of the child is kept at the forefront. If you and your spouse develop a plan that a judge does not find beneficial to your children, it may not be approved. 

Additionally, some states do not allow divorcing couples with children to file for an uncontested divorce. Check with your attorney to learn more about the divorce process in your state if children are involved. 

Do I Need To Hire a Divorce Lawyer in My Area?

You are not required to hire a divorce lawyer to handle your case. However, not doing so could leave you vulnerable to unfair settlement agreements as well as an unfavorable ruling. Divorce lawyers can be beneficial in many ways that include:

  • Help with understanding your state’s laws and how they apply to your case
  • Negotiating with your spouse and their attorney
  • Drafting and reviewing settlement agreements
  • Filing paperwork and motions
  • Offering you a third-party opinion 

The benefits of hiring a lawyer are clear. Unfortunately, many choose to represent themselves because they can’t afford the cost of hiring a divorce lawyer. Most family law attorneys charge $3k - $5k upfront and an additional $300 - $500 per hour. 

Fortunately, you can save thousands of dollars in upfront fees by taking care of some things on your own and hiring an unbundled legal attorney to take care of the rest. Learn more about unbundled legal services below. 

How Can Unbundled Legal Services Help Me Save Money?

The average cost of a contested divorce in the U.S. is $15,000. Needless to say, traditional attorney fees account for a large percentage of those costs. Lawyers are so expensive because they typically handle every aspect of your case. However, if you are willing to handle some tasks on your own, you can save a lot of money on legal fees. 

With unbundled legal services, you can hire an unbundled divorce lawyer in your area to help you with your case for as low as $500 - $1500. If your case is a good fit to be unbundled, you will not be required to pay thousands of dollars in upfront legal fees. 

If your case is more complex, our network of unbundled attorneys also offers full representation at affordable rates. 

Before you spend your hard-earned money on a traditional divorce lawyer, get instantly connected with a divorce lawyer in your area, and learn if your case is a good fit to be unbundled today.

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