While no two divorces are exactly alike, one aspect always stays the same: the paperwork. You hear the term “divorce papers” casually thrown around all the time in movies, TV shows, or by gossipy neighbors. But what actually are divorce papers?
It is tricky to know exactly what they are because it is such a broad term. They technically refer to all the papers needed for the divorce process. The actual number of documents included in the complete paperwork varies from couple to couple. However, four primary papers almost always accompany the divorce: the petition, the summons, the answer, and the judgment.
Paper #1: Starting the Divorce Petition
First things first, someone needs to begin the divorce process. The petition is the first step in the divorce. This means that one spouse needs to officially ask a court to end their marriage. This is the legal step that sometimes follows a separation. So, if you are the person initiating the process, you will fill out a form called a petition (sometimes called a “petition for dissolution of marriage” or the “complaint”). This form varies from state to state and can sometimes be found online or in person at the court.
In some states, the complaint is not a standard form, but an individualized statement. The petition has general information about both spouses and the length of the marriage. This is your first chance to indicate what you want from the judge. In this first form, you might be required to list out any community or separate property and how you would ideally split it. However, just because you indicate this is how you want to split it, it might not be divided as so. If children are involved, the spouse starting the divorce process will need to indicate what they would ideally want in terms of custody and care. When this form is finished, it is turned in or “filed” with the court, and you need to give a copy to your spouse. This divorce paper filing is the first step in the divorce process.
If you’re not ready for divorce papers but are contemplating separation or divorce,
you might want to start here: “36 Things to Do If You are Thinking About Divorce”.
Paper #2: Informing the Other Person – The Summons and Service
Now, as lovely as it would be to go through the entire process without your spouse, legally, they need to know that you have filed for a divorce. They learn that you have filed for divorce through the service of the divorce paperwork.
“Service” is when someone (every state has different laws on who this person can be) gives your spouse the first divorce papers.
The service aspect of divorce is often a dramatic or awkward plot point in the media, with someone providing the protagonist with the divorce papers at a very inconvenient time. Regardless of how it gets there, your petition must make it to your spouse to give them notice and allow them to participate in the process.
If you’ve been the ONE hit with divorce papers, check out “What to Do When You Get Served with Divorce Papers.”
There are generally two papers being served, the petition and a summons. The summons tells the other person that you have filed a divorce and usually tells them what they need to do next and how long they have to do it. This might include the amount of time they have to respond if there is a preliminary court hearing and general directions for the process. Every state has different rules regarding the summons and court process.
Do you ever wonder who else in the world could be thinking “divorce”?
Read “What Percentage of Marriages End in Divorce?” to understand more about the nuances of the question and to realize, you’re not alone.
Paper #3: Responding – The Answer
After your spouse is served with the initial paperwork, it’s time for them to ask the court for what they want. There are two main ways an answer can happen. The first is that your spouse just doesn’t respond to the petition and summons. This means that they have chosen to stay out of the divorce process, and you will skip right to a “default judgment.” A default judgment is when the judge will finalize the process based on the petition.
The other option is for your spouse to participate in the case and fill out and file an answer. The answer is a written response to the petition. It tells the court exactly what they want out of the proceeding. The answer will either agree or disagree with the terms set out in the petition. Some states require an appearance form along with the answer. This tells you and the court that your spouse is taking part in the court case and that they want to go to court (think of it as the counterpart to the summons).
Like the petition, the answer and appearance forms must be filed with the court clerk, either in person, online, or by mail, and served to the other person. You must know what your spouse intends to argue for in the negotiation or court process.
Paper #4: The Final Decision, The Last Step, The Judgment
After the long process of papers, negotiation, and stress, all you want is for the divorce to be done and over with. However, a divorce is not finalized until the judge gives the final order, called a judgment.
This final judgment follows some form of discussion (whether it is a contested or uncontested divorce) about what each person will get from the divorce. Judges, lawyers, and most people prefer to keep divorces out of the courtroom, so they will often explore other negotiation options, like mediation and arbitration, before going to court.
Official Decision by the Court
After the couple has come to some form of an agreement, a judge must give the court’s official decision that officially grants the divorce. This is most often done with lawyers or a mediator submitting the divorce draft agreement to the court for the court to then review and stamp (usually) with approval.
We recommend that every woman, no matter how she divorces, seek a private consultation with a divorce attorney. Learn your rights and what you are entitled to (even if you elect for DIY divorce) before you start splitting things up. (Yes, no matter what your spouse says.) We’re not saying spend a bundle, but you’ll want to know why you don’t want to search for cheap divorce lawyers in the process.
This final judgment or divorce judgment is the final paper in the divorce paper repertoire. However, like all aspects of life and divorce, it is not always so straightforward. After the judgment, there is always the option of modifying the terms of your divorce by a court order. You might want to modify aspects like property division, debt division, or alimony. In order to change a final ruling in a divorce, there generally needs to be some substantial change of circumstances. This can include: a job loss, one spouse has remarried, or one spouse is earning significantly more than they were at the time of the divorce.
Paper #5: Other Common Papers
Every divorce is different, so they will all have different papers that come with them. These can include property division forms, more complicated child custody or visitation forms, or alimony/marital maintenance forms. Every state has a different procedure and might have other forms accompanying a standard divorce.
Divorces are full of complex paperwork. It is important to keep track of them and stay organized and informed on the different papers needed to complete a divorce in your state. This is key to making the process go as smoothly as possible.
Elizabeth Newland is a third-year law student in Chicago who is committed to children and family rights. She aims to work in a family-related non-profit firm after graduation.
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