If you're planning on getting divorced in Georgia, the legal process can seem daunting. But it doesn't always have to be an ordeal, depending on your circumstances and the choices you make.
You can file for divorce on your own, with the help of an online divorce service, or by having a lawyer take care of everything for you. As we'll explain below, your choice between these options depends on the specifics of your situation, as well as the time, money, and other resources available to you. If you're considering the do-it-yourself option, it's essential that you understand Georgia's requirements, including which forms you'll need, where to file the documents, and what steps to take after that. Here's a basic overview of the process.
Before you can file for divorce in Georgia, either you or your spouse must have been a resident in the state for the last six consecutive months. (Ga. Code § 19-5-2 (2021).)
You could conceivably meet this residency requirement if you lived as a couple in another state before you moved here six months ago, leaving your spouse behind. But that could lead to problems down the road in your divorce, because the judge might not be able to order your spouse to pay child support or alimony (spousal support) if your spouse never lived in Georgia. The rules are complicated for what's known as "personal jurisdiction" (essentially, the court's authority to decide on a person's rights). So you should speak with an attorney if you're in this situation. (Ga. Code § 9-10-92 (2021).)
In addition to the residency requirement, you must have a "ground" for divorce, meaning a legally acceptable reason for ending the marriage. Georgia has both "fault" and "no-fault" divorce grounds. Fault grounds apply when you're accusing your spouse of wrongdoing, such as adultery, mental or physical cruelty, or desertion. The only no-fault ground available in Georgia is that the marriage is "irretrievably broken." In non-legalese, this means the spouses can't get along and there's no reasonable chance of that changing. (Ga. Code § 19-5-3(13) (2021).) Because your spouse would almost certainly dispute claims of misconduct when you choose one of the fault-based divorce grounds, it's usually best to file for a no-fault divorce if you want to avoid unnecessary legal battles.
However, there are reasons you might want to consider a fault-based ground. For example, judges ordinarily award alimony based on one spouse's need and the other spouse's ability to pay. But a spouse who is guilty of adultery or desertion may not receive alimony under Georgia law. Still, a judge may consider evidence of adultery for this purpose regardless of the divorce grounds listed in the complaint. (Ga. Code § 19-6-1(b) (2021).) If you're anticipating fights over what you believe to be your spouse's misconduct, you should speak to an experienced family lawyer about the best way to move forward.
The divorce complaint is the most significant of the documents you'll need to prepare and file with the court. This is where you tell the court how you qualify for the divorce (residency and grounds) and identify the matters you want the court to address, such as alimony (spousal support), child custody, child support, and how to divide your property and debts. If you're the one who's starting the divorce process, you'll fill out the form as the "plaintiff" (sometimes also referred to as the "petitioner" in Georgia). Your spouse is known as the "defendant" or "respondent."
The Georgia courts provide online packets of the basic forms you'll need to start your divorce, along with instructions, checklists, and videos that walk you through the process. The forms will be different depending on whether you and your spouse have minor children. Note that many counties have their own forms, so be sure to check the website of the Superior Court clerk's office in the county where you will file your paperwork (more on that below), or call the office for more information.
Instead of tracking down and filling out the forms yourself, you can use an online divorce service that will provide you with the completed forms (based on your answers to a questionnaire) and basically walk you through the divorce process. But be aware that these services normally only handle uncontested divorces. If you're having trouble agreeing with your spouse about all the issues in your divorce, you can get help with mediation.
When you're filing for an uncontested divorce and want the judge to make your marital settlement agreement part of your final divorce judgment, be sure to file the signed, notarized agreement with the complaint and other paperwork.
Generally, you'll file the divorce complaint and accompanying documents with the Superior Court clerk's office in the county where your spouse lives. However, you may file in the county where you live if:
(Ga. Const., Art. VI, Sec. II, Par. 1.)
Some counties in Georgia require you to file your divorce paperwork online (even when you're representing yourself), so check with the clerk's office to find out the requirements.
When you're ready to file your case, be prepared to pay a divorce filing fee. The fees vary from county to county—typically about $200 to $300. There might also be additional fees for e-filing. If you can't afford to pay the filing fees, ask the court clerk about applying for a waiver.
Once you file your forms, they must be "served on" (delivered to) your spouse. Georgia law requires personal service of the divorce documents, including a summons. If your spouse agrees to accept service informally, be sure to obtain a signed Acknowledgment of Service for filing with the court. (Ga. Code §§ 9-10-73 (2021).)
Otherwise, you'll have to arrange to have the papers hand-delivered to your spouse, usually by the local sheriff or a certified process server.
If you haven't been able to serve your spouse personally, or if your spouse is out-of-state, ask the court clerk about getting permission to use an alternative method of service. You can also ask how to serve a spouse who is in the military or in jail.
Your spouse normally has 30 days after receiving the divorce paperwork to file a response. The reply to your complaint may be an "Answer," in which the spouse agrees with or disagrees with anything you entered in the complaint. Or your spouse may file an "Answer and Counterclaim". A counterclaim means your spouse is making a divorce claim against you, and it addresses many of the same topics included in the original complaint.
As part of the divorce process, both spouses will have to provide detailed information about their income, expenses, assets, and liabilities. Each of you will need to complete and submit a financial affidavit.
This document requires you to provide a great deal of data about your income and assets. It's a good idea to gather as much of this information in advance as you can, because it's important that you be as thorough as possible in completing this form. You also must be honest. A spouse who fails to disclose all accounts, debts, or assets could face penalties in a divorce case, such as fines and possible jail time.
While filing for divorce on your own is possible, it might not always be the best idea. A DIY divorce makes the most sense when you have an uncontested case or you have no minor children and very few assets. But you might be better off hiring a lawyer when you have disputes with your spouse, or you have significant or complex assets to divide. Divorce laws can be quite complicated. A qualified divorce lawyer will know the intricacies of the law, as well as the ins-and-outs of the court system.
Remember, you're likely going to have to live with the results of your case well after the divorce is over. If, down the road, you realize you made a mistake, there's no guarantee you'll be able to correct it. So it pays to get it right the first time.