Basically, an uncontested divorce means that a couple has agreed about the issues in their divorce. There are different kinds of uncontested divorce, but they all have this in common: The couple won't need to go to trial to have a judge make decisions for them on the details of their divorce. And that means they'll save both money and time.
If you want an uncontested divorce, you and your spouse must reach a divorce settlement agreement that includes all of the legal issues involved in ending your marriage, including:
A judge will have to approve your settlement agreement before signing your final divorce decree or judgment. That usually isn't a problem unless the agreement:
Usually, the term "uncontested divorce" means that a couple has already reached a complete settlement agreement before starting the legal divorce process. That way, they can take advantage of all the time- and cost-saving benefits of uncontested divorce (discussed below). Typically, they'll include the written agreement along with the other paperwork when they file for divorce.
If you and your spouse can't agree about all of the issues before you file your initial divorce papers, your case will proceed as a contested divorce. But that doesn't necessarily mean that you'll have to go to trial. In fact, most couples who start out with a contested divorce eventually manage to settle their disputes out of court—usually with the help of lawyers, mediators, or both. Technically, their case is then uncontested, but that's not what courts (and this article) usually mean by "uncontested divorce."
Some states or individual courts use different terms for uncontested divorce, such as "divorce by mutual consent" (in Maryland), or "divorce by consent decree" (in Arizona).
Other states have special streamlined procedures for getting an uncontested divorce, with names like:
These procedures save steps (and time) in the divorce process, but they're limited to couples who can meet certain requirements, such as:
Learn more about the requirements and procedures for uncontested divorce in your state.
The fewer complications you have in your divorce, the easier it will be to work out a settlement agreement. So the best candidates for uncontested divorce are spouses who:
However, an uncontested divorce isn't out of reach just because you have kids or substantial assets—as long as you can communicate well, cooperate, and negotiate all the details. Still, the more complicated your situation is, the more likely it is that you will need some kind of professional help to reach a comprehensive and fair settlement. (More below on where to get that help.)
You probably won't be a good candidate for an uncontested divorce if you and your spouse have a high level of conflict or a major imbalance in power—financial or emotional. This is especially true if you've experienced or are afraid of domestic violence.
Even with the help of a mediator, both you and your spouse must be willing to compromise. And you need a relatively level playing field to negotiate a fair settlement agreement. That's not possible if one spouse is abusive, bullying, or simply willing and able to hide assets.
An uncontested divorce is typically a much quicker process than a traditional, contested divorce. After you've filed your initial paperwork, most states have waiting periods before you can get your final divorce—usually about one to three months.
Beyond any waiting period, the actual amount of time it will take to get your uncontested divorce will depend mostly on whether you've submitted all of the required paperwork, whether you'll need to attend a court hearing (which isn't required for uncontested divorces in many states), and how busy the courts are in the county where you filed for divorce. Unless you live in a state with a relatively long waiting period (like the six-month wait in California), you can usually expect to get your final divorce decree or judgment within about three or four months.
Also, you should know that a few states—like South Carolina—require a lengthy separation (sometimes a year or more) before you can file for an uncontested divorce or get your final divorce. If you live in one of those states and haven't been separated from your spouse long enough, you could face a considerable wait.
Many couples can get an uncontested divorce without having to hire lawyers to represent them throughout the process. Still, even if you can mostly handle your own DIY divorce, it might make sense to have an attorney's help on a limited, or consulting, basis. For instance, you might want legal advice on one specific question. Or you might ask a lawyer to review your settlement agreement to make sure that you haven't inadvertently given up any of your legal rights—or simply overlooked something the agreement should address.
A warning: After reaching an agreement, some couples will try to save money by having one spouse hire an attorney to prepare the written settlement document. But a lawyer can only represent one spouse's interests—which means the other spouse could very well be at a disadvantage in this situation. If your spouse is going to have an attorney draft a settlement agreement, you should seriously consider hiring your own lawyer to review the agreement. The amount you pay for the lawyer's hourly rate could save you a lot of money down the road.
The most obvious advantage of uncontested divorce is cost. That's because attorneys' fees are typically the biggest expense in divorce, and—as we've pointed out—most couples don't need an attorney to represent them throughout an uncontested divorce.
The main expense item in an uncontested divorce is the court's filing fees. Those fees vary from state to state (and sometimes from county to county), but they typically range from about $100 to over $400. In states that allow couples to file the paperwork together, spouses can split the filing fee. Also, if you can't afford the filing fees, you might be able to get a waiver if you apply for one—and you qualify based on your income and assets.
You might have additional expenses if you've used a consulting lawyer or other expert help (more on that below). But even adding in the cost of divorce mediation, an uncontested divorce will almost always be considerably less expensive that a contested divorce.
It doesn't happen often, but spouses who've signed a settlement agreement might later change their minds about one or more provisions in the agreement. A signed agreement is a legally binding contract, and attempting to back out of it could potentially be considered an "anticipatory" breach of contract.
Practically speaking, however, if you or your spouse no longer agrees to everything in your divorce settlement agreement, the court will simply treat your case as a contested divorce. And you'll almost certainly need to speak with a lawyer to find out how to proceed.
Along with the option of getting assistance from a lawyer (as we've discussed above), other resources are available to help with the uncontested divorce process, including: