What is a "contested" divorce?

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Question:

What does "contested" mean for a divorce?

Answer:

A “contested” divorce is the most complicated of divorces, because it involves spouses that can’t come to an agreement on one or many issues of their divorce.

Typically there are two kinds of divorces. The first is an “uncontested” divorce; this is where both spouses agree on all issues concerning the divorce, including but not limited to the division of marital property and debts, child custody, child support, and spousal support (“alimony”).  

The second - a “contested” divorce - is where the spouses cannot agree on their divorce issues, and they end up in court, asking a judge to make these decisions for them.

Uncontested Divorce

An uncontested divorce basically means that both spouses agree on all of their divorce-related issues. Each state has specific legal requirements that must be met before a divorcing couple can proceed with an uncontested divorce. You may want to consult with a local attorney or check your local courthouse website for the specific requirements.

Even though you have to meet certain requirements, an uncontested divorce is often much easier than a contested divorce because spouses can end their marriage without constant negotiations, legal posturing, and court hearings. Thus, an uncontested divorce usually involves less stress and fewer legal fees.

However, divorcing spouses must be amicable and able to work together toward mutually agreeable resolutions. They have to be willing to compromise in order to resolve all of their divorce issues. Although working with your soon-to-be-ex to settle important financial and child-related issues may seem difficult, it’s one way to end your marriage without a full-blown court battle.

Contested Divorce

A contested divorce is just what it sounds like: one or both spouses contest (dispute) some aspect of their divorce. Therefore, the divorce proceedings take much longer to complete and typically involve greater stress and increased legal fees.

With a contested divorce, spouses will have to go through numerous steps before the divorce is finalized, including:

  • prepare, file and serve (deliver) the divorce petition (legal paperwork asking for the divorce and stating the grounds for the breakdown of the marriage)
  • respond to the petition
  • interview and hire an attorney
  • engage in “divorce discovery” – the information gathering process, which involves various legal procedures to get information from your spouse and third-party witnesses (e.g., written questions, subpoenas, and depositions)
  • pre-trial legal motions and hearings
  • settlement proposals and negotiations between attorneys
  • if settlement fails, prepare for trial
  • complete a court trial
  • appeal, if you dispute the trial judge’s decision(s).

During the settlement phase, spouses are often unable to resolve issues. Although the divorce judge may encourage spouses to work things out, when that doesn’t happen the next step is divorce court.

During trial, both spouses present witnesses, and their lawyers cross-examine the witnesses and present closing arguments. After trial is over, the court will issue a final order memorializing all of the judge’s decisions, and finalize the divorce.

Divorce—especially ones that are contested—are complex. Therefore, spouses in a contested divorce should definitely speak with an experienced divorce lawyer who can inform them of their legal rights and ensure they are fully protected.

For more information, see Ten Things You Should Know About Divorce.

This site does not provide legal advice and users of this site should not interpret any of the information presented here as legal advice. The information provided merely conveys general information related to commonly asked legal questions. We are not a law firm and the employees responding to questions are not acting as your legal attorney. You should ultimately consult with a lawyer for your case.

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