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What Is a Contested Divorce?

9 min read
Philip Ahn, Attorney

by Philip Ahn, Attorney

A divorce, whether contested or uncontested, can be emotionally draining, financially challenging, and generally anxiety provoking. This can be especially true if you and your spouse do not agree on important issues that arise during the divorce process. 

Contested divorces are often complex. They typically result when a couple can’t agree on important issues. Some couples do find a way to agree via mediation and other forms of negotiation. However, many contested divorces are resolved when a judge makes the final decision. 

If you are in the midst of a contested divorce, we can connect you today with a local, experienced divorce lawyer from our network of unbundled, lower cost attorneys. Learn more below about contested divorces. 

Contested Divorce Basics

The outcome of a divorce is the termination of a marriage. While the result never changes, the path to finalizing a divorce can be quite different for couples depending on whether their divorce is contested or uncontested. 

A contested divorce is just as it sounds. They occur when one or both spouses dispute certain aspects of their divorce. In general, you can expect a contested divorce to be a much longer process than an uncontested divorce. 

This is due to the many steps that are involved such as filing motions, serving paperwork, the discovery process, settlement negotiations, the trial, testimony, etc. For the most part, people prefer to have an uncontested divorce as it is usually more beneficial to both parties. Couples going through a contested divorce commonly have disputes on topics such as:

  • Child custody and/or visitation rights
  • Child support, spousal support, and alimony
  • Asset distribution, debt allocation, and division of property 
  • Temporary orders (custody, financial, or support issues)

Contested divorces that involve children are often contentious. Family court judges try to make custodial and child support decisions based on the best interest of the child. The elements for determining the child’s best interest include custody, mental health evaluations, witness testimony, documentation, and the evidence presented. 

Essentially, when your divorce is contested, you and your spouse lose control over issues that are most important to you both. Furthermore, you lose your privacy.  Much of the information presented during a divorce trial becomes public knowledge. Contested divorces are costly, longer, and more complicated than uncontested divorces.

Steps To Get a Contested Divorce

Before you file for a contested divorce, it is best to have an understanding of what the process entails and what is required of you. Making mistakes, skipping steps, and/or not having an understanding of your rights, can cause delays, be more expensive, and create plenty of headaches. Learn more about the steps for getting a contested divorce below. 

1. Meet with a Divorce Lawyer

If your divorce is contested, there will likely be a lot on the line. Risking the most important parts of your life by filing for a contested divorce without the help of a divorce attorney could negatively impact your case. 

It is recommended that you meet with multiple lawyers before making a final hire. This will allow you to compare experience, resources, customer service, price, and overall compatibility. Your divorce lawyer will have a significant impact on the overall outcome of your case. 

They will advise you on your rights, the most likely outcomes, and the next steps to take. Furthermore, your family law attorney will play a key role in negotiating with your spouse and presenting a compelling argument on your behalf if it goes to court. While it is typically best to hire an attorney, it is possible to represent yourself throughout the divorce process. 

2. File for Divorce 

If you have hired a divorce lawyer to handle every aspect of your case, they take care of the filing process. However, you will still be responsible for providing them with correct information and documentation. 

Those who file for a contested divorce on their own, must search their state’s website and/or contact the clerk’s office to find out where they get the forms needed to file for divorce. You can expect to pay $300-$500 in filing fees, depending on the state you live in. 

It is important to keep copies of the paperwork you file with the clerk’s office as you will need it for the next step. 

3. Serve the Paperwork to Your Spouse

After your paperwork is filed with the court, you are required to serve the paperwork to your spouse. The rules for serving divorce documents vary state-to-state. In general, it is best to use your divorce lawyer to serve the paperwork to your spouse (or their attorney) or you can hire a professional process serving company to handle it. 

It is the responsibility of the filing spouse to serve the divorce petition to the other spouse. Most states require that you also file a “proof of service” at the clerk’s office to show the courts that you have met your obligation. 

After your spouse is served, there is a limited amount of time to respond. This is typically 30-60 days. If they do not respond, they risk a “default judgment” entered against them which can be difficult to overturn. 

4. Engage in Discovery

Once the divorce process begins, you will need to prepare for the pending negotiations and a potential trial. If you have hired a divorce attorney, this step can generally be less time-consuming. 

The discovery process allows each spouse to obtain information about the other spouse’s assets, income, debt, custody demands, and other issues pertinent to the divorce. This is accomplished through requests for documents, written inquiries, and depositions. 

Spouses can file temporary orders for child custody, child support, property disputes, and spousal support. Temporary orders remain in effect until the case concludes. In many cases, the terms of temporary orders are similar to the outcome of the case. This is why you must be prepared for the discovery phase. 

5. Negotiate with Your Spouse 

It is typically in the best interest of all parties involved to find an agreement before a divorce case reaches trial. Most states encourage couples to attend mediation, arbitration, or a collaborative divorce process. Some couples agree to negotiate on their own, others are ordered to attend court-ordered mediation sessions. 

If you and your ex are unable to resolve divorce-related disputes during the discovery phase, the next step is going to trial. 

6. Go to Trial

During a divorce trial, both sides will have an opportunity to present evidence, witnesses, documentation, and make their closing arguments. Additionally, a judge may require child custody and mental health evaluations.

While an uncontested divorce can be concluded rather quickly, contested divorces that reach a  trial can take many months and in some cases, up to a year to conclude. The exact time it takes for a judge to render a decision will be based on the complexity of each case, the number of disputes between the two spouses, how far apart they are on their disagreements, and other factors. 

7. Final Judgment

After all the evidence is presented, the witnesses have been examined and cross-examined, the evaluations conducted, etc. a judge will make the final ruling. If mediation or other types of evaluations are ordered in your case, a family court judge will rely heavily on those recommendations. 

Thus, your actions, engagement, and ability to be fair during court-ordered mediation sessions have a significant effect on the recommendation that your mediator submits to the judge. If you are unhappy with the court’s final ruling, you have the option to file an appeal or ask for a modification of your divorce decree. 

Generally speaking, successful appeals are unlikely, unless you have strong proof that the court made a legal error in its procedure or the law. Modifications can be requested for spousal support, child support, alimony, as well as child custody issues. 

If you wish to make a change to the final divorce decree after it is rendered, you must usually prove that there has been a significant change in circumstances after the ruling. If your modification request includes child custody, you must prove that the modifications are in the child’s best interest. Otherwise, they are not likely to be approved. 

Should I Hire an Attorney for My Contested Divorce?

You have the right to file for divorce without hiring a divorce lawyer. However, this is not typically recommended. Divorce lawyers are beneficial in many ways. This is true for both contested and uncontested divorces.  For those who find themselves in a contested divorce, it is especially recommended they hire an attorney. Common benefits of divorce attorneys include:

  • They make it much easier to settle your case before going to court
  • Your attorney can act as a liaison between you and your spouse during negotiations
  • A divorce attorney will explain your rights as well as what you’re entitled to
  • Can draft and review agreements to ensure your best interests are protected
  • Help to protect your parental rights 
  • Ensure that all your paperwork is filed correctly 

Are Contested Divorces More Expensive?

In short, yes. Contested divorces are notoriously more expensive than uncontested divorces. This is due to many factors including the cost of mediation, other professionals, court fees, and attorney fees. 

The cost of your contested divorce will vary depending on the complexity of your case, how many disputes you have with your spouse, and how well you can negotiate before going to trial. In contrast, uncontested divorces will spend a fraction of the time in court, and as a result, spend far less on legal fees. 

Most divorce lawyers charge more to handle contested divorces than they do for uncontested divorces. The average family law attorney charges $3,000 to $5,000 upfront, and an additional $300t to $500 per hour on top of that. Fortunately, there are ways you can save money. Some of the most effective cost methods include:

  • Taking negotiations with your spouse seriously and working towards a win-win outcome
  • Filing mistake-free paperwork and correctly following all divorce procedures
  • Taking care of some parts of your divorce on your own, and hiring an unbundled attorney to handle the rest

It’s no secret that contested divorces are expensive. Such high costs lead many to risk the most important aspects of their lives by filing for divorce on their own. With unbundled legal services, you don’t have to worry about paying thousands of dollars in upfront legal costs. 

Unbundled legal services allow you to handle the parts of your case you are comfortable with, while you hire a family lawyer to help you with the rest. You can hire an unbundled attorney to help you with your case for as low as $500-$1500. 

Unbundled legal services are not a good fit for every case. If your case is more complex, our network of unbundled lawyers also offers full representation at a very affordable rate. 

Before you spend thousands of dollars on upfront legal costs, contact an unbundled attorney, and learn if your case is a good fit to be unbundled today.

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