In the State of Iowa, a divorce is technically known as a "dissolution of marriage." A dissolution of marriage is identical to a divorce—both end your marriage once they're finalized.
In order to start the divorce process while representing yourself, you’ll need to complete some forms. You can obtain some of the forms online, from the Iowa Judicial Branch's self-represented divorce forms index. These are official forms, but you should double-check with your local court to make sure the judges there will accept them.
Be thorough and complete in responding to the questions. Fill out the forms on a computer if you can. If not, write or print neatly and legibly.
Iowa has one basic set of online forms for self-represented people to use. However, the forms can only be used by couples who don't have any minor children (meaning, underage children who are financially dependent on you). If you have minor children then you can't use the forms and you'll need to contact the clerk of court in your county for more information.
For those who qualify to use the forms, Iowa has a simple, step-by-step set of instructions to walk you through the divorce process. The way that you fill out the forms depends, in part, on whether you are the "petitioner" (the spouse who initiates the divorce) or the "respondent" (the spouse who is served with divorce papers). It's important to note that you're required to use these forms if you're divorcing and you don't have children.
If you have children, you can expect to complete documents that are similar to the ones outlined above. For example, if you are the petitioner, you'll need to complete, file, and serve a petition regardless of whether you have children. The contents of the petition, however, may be different. Or if you have children, you'll need to complete other documents pertaining to child support and visitation. The clerk of court can help you determine what documents you'll need, but keep in mind that you still have to complete them yourself, without the assistance of the clerk.
If you're the petitioner, it's time to print your forms and make copies. Make two photocopies of the petition and original notice for personal service if you're going to mail them to your spouse, or make three copies if you are going to have a sheriff or process server physically hand the documents to the respondent. You don't have to make any photocopies of the coversheet or confidential information form. In fact, make sure you don't give a copy of the confidential information form to the respondent by mistake.
Next, go to your local courthouse (the one where you or your spouse are living) and ask to file the original documents and the photocopies. You’ll need to pay a filing fee unless you complete the Application and Affidavit to Defer Payment of Costs (Form FL-109) and the court agrees that the fee should be waived because you're indigent (meaning, you can’t afford it).
The clerk will take all your original papers and put them in a court file. The clerk will also time-stamp the papers, including the photocopies, and sign the original notice form.
Ask the clerk to give you a Report of Dissolution of Marriage or Annulment form. Fill in everything but items 18 through 22, which the clerk will fill in.
If you're the respondent, it's critical to know that you only have 20 days from the date you received the petition to file your answer in the court where the petition was filed. If you don't make the 20 day deadline, the court can enter a default judgment against you. This means that the court can make decisions without any input from you.
When the petitioner has finished filing your papers with the court, it's time to deliver a copy to the respondent. It's important for the petitioner to do this as soon as possible, because if the divorce papers aren't served on the respondent within 90 days of filing, the petitioner's case will be dismissed (terminated).
Sending your spouse a copy of all the forms constitutes "service of process." Service of process is very important in the American legal system because it ensures that everyone has notice about what’s going on and an opportunity to “appear,” or argue, their point of view. Service of process ensures that no one is ever “ambushed” in a courtroom.
Send the Original Notice and one copy of the petition to the respondent, then file the appropriate proof of service form (contained in the petitioner's forms packet) with the court.
There are two service options. First, if you think the respondent will be cooperative, you can deliver the forms yourself, in person or through regular first class U.S. Mail. You'll need to include the Acceptance of Service document (Form FL-105) and the respondent will need to sign it so you can file it with the court as proof of service. Second, you can ask your sheriff or a private process server to physically hand the documents to the respondent (known as "personal service") and complete the Directions for Service of Original Notice (Form FL-106). The sheriff or process server will then file the proof of service with the court.
If you need to serve a respondent who is hard to locate, in jail, in the military, or in another state, you should check with the clerk of court for more information.
As soon as possible, both spouses should complete the Financial Affidavit (Form FL-124). This required document is a sworn statement that outlines income, expenses, assets, and debts. This helps everyone to understand the full economic situation and assists the court in making fair decisions. Make sure you are clear, detailed, and candid when you complete this form.
Iowa Legal Aid, a nonprofit organization that helps low-income Iowa residents with legal problems, has compiled a set of helpful links to sources that explain basic legal concepts and processes you'll need to understand if you're ending a marriage in Iowa. For more information about Iowa Legal Aid's services, call 1-800-532-1275 or go to this page.
Iowa Legal Aid has also prepared a free 16 page brochure explaining how to use the official court forms when you're filing for divorce and don't have children.