No two marriages are alike -- and the same goes for divorces. Many factors come into play, including the reasons for the split and your and your mate's willingness to compromise. And, of course, every state has its own set of divorce laws, which could affect the outcome of your split. But many of the basic steps in the divorce process are similar, regardless of where you live. Here's what the process is like for many divorces.
Try mediation first. An increasing number of divorcing couples are seeking the services of mediators, specially trained third parties who help couples resolve issues as fairly and amicably as possible. Unlike a lawyer, who is paid to represent each person's interests, mediators are paid jointly by a couple and are trained to stay neutral. "We help couples look at issues like child custody, alimony and assets more reasonably," says Arianna Jeret, a divorce mediator in Redondo Beach, California. Mediation is often faster and friendlier than hashing things out in court; plus, it's less expensive. "A mediated divorce typically takes a tenth of the time (less than six months) at a tenth of the cost (often less than $5,000) compared to a litigated one," Jeret says. In certain states, such as Florida, court dockets are so jammed with cases that divorcing couples are required to try mediation first. To find a qualified mediator, conduct an online search for mediation associations or organizations in your state or ask family, friends, or a family lawyer for referrals.
Talk to an attorney. If mediation isn't working or your case is complex, you may need the services of a family law attorney. "A mediator can't give legal advice or provide counseling that benefits one party over the other," says Barry Finkel, a family law attorney who practices in Boca Raton and Fort Lauderdale. But an attorney can. Of course, you'll pay more for that expertise: Attorney fees range by practice and geographic location, but the average is $500 an hour. Most cases settle for about $15,000 per person. "Couples who go to trial may spend upwards of $30,000 each by the time the divorce is final," says Brette Sember, a former family law attorney and author of The Complete Divorce Guide and The Divorce Organizer and Planner. You can find an attorney through your state or city bar association or ask family or friends for referrals.
Talk through your financial situation. Bring your financial information when you meet with your mediator or lawyer. This includes last year's tax documents and information about current salaries, bank and investment accounts, real estate, retirement plans, cars and any valuable property. Don't forget to bring information about debts, too: mortgage, car payments, student loans, and credit cards.
Know what to expect. Your mediator or lawyer will handle much of the paperwork for you. This is what typically happens in divorce proceedings.
1. One spouse serves the other with a written divorce petition. The recipient must use a specific form to respond to the spouse and to the court by the date specified. "You must respond by the specified date or you lose your chance to present your side to the court," Sember says. If that happens, child and spousal support as well as custody and the distribution of assets might be jeopardized.2. If you and your spouse are able to reach an agreement, the settlement will be entered into court for approval. A mediator must use the services of an attorney for this step.3. If you've been using a mediator and can't reach a settlement, now is the time to hire an attorney. During the discovery process, your attorney will gather information from you and others. She may subpoena bank or business records or request to question your spouse (called a deposition).4. In court, attorneys for both sides will present their cases and perhaps call on people to testify. The judge won't issue a decision that day; it takes a few weeks. Your divorce is not complete until the judge's final judgment or order of the case has been entered.5. If you think you might want to change your name after the divorce, make sure your lawyer includes this as part of the divorce decree. Otherwise, you may have to go through another legal process later to make a name change.
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