If you're a New York resident who's decided to file for divorce, the New York Courts website provides an overview of the divorce process, as well as the forms you'll need to move forward.
When filing for divorce, there are a number of paths you can take:
If you decide to pursue the divorce by yourself, here's some advice about what you need to do to begin the process.
Before you complete or file any divorce forms, you must meet New York's residency requirements. Generally, you'll meet this requirement if you were married in New York and either you or your spouse has lived there continuously for the year before filing for divorce, or if either spouse lived in the state continuously during the two-year period before filing. (N.Y Dom. Rel. Law § 230 (2021).)
You must also have a legal reason ("ground") for divorce. New York allows both "fault" and "no-fault" grounds for divorce.
When you file for divorce in New York based on a fault ground, you will claim that your spouse engaged in certain wrongful conduct, like cruelty, adultery, or abandonment. In contrast, no-fault grounds don't point a finger of blame at either spouse. For uncontested divorces in New York, the no-fault ground most commonly used is the "irretrievable breakdown of the marriage". In non-legalese, this basically means you and your spouse can't get along, and there's no reasonable prospect of that changing. (N.Y. Dom. Rel. Law § 170(7) (2021).)
You can find and download the instructions and forms you'll need to file for an uncontested divorce in the Uncontested Divorce Packet on the court's website. (If you have no children under the age of 21, you can use New York's streamlined Uncontested Divorce Program.)
When you're filing for divorce, be prepared to pay the various New York court filing fees (which total $335 as of 2021 but are always subject to change). In situations involving financial hardship, you can apply for a fee waiver.
In order to start the divorce, you'll have to complete and file the following forms:
Again, these forms are available on the court's website.
Both the Summons With Notice and the Summons and Verified Complaint require you to provide the grounds for divorce, as well as other items you want addressed (known as "relief"). This includes topics such as child custody, child support, division of property, and spousal maintenance ("alimony").
Bring the completed forms (along with two copies) to the Supreme Court clerk's office in the county where you're starting the divorce (typically, the county where either you or your spouse resides). The clerk will assign an index number for your case, which you must include on all your divorce forms.
You must serve your spouse with a copy of the initial divorce forms within 120 days of filing them. (N.Y. C.P.L.R. § 306-B (2021).)
Someone other than you has to serve the papers personally. If your spouse lives in New York state, anyone who resides in New York, isn't directly involved in the divorce, and is over 18 years old can deliver the forms. Whoever served the papers must file an "Affidavit of Service" with the court.
There are different rules for service if your spouse lives outside New York state. Also, if you've tried but haven't been able to find your spouse, you may request that the court approve an alternate method of service (such as publication in a newspaper).
Your spouse will have 20 days to respond after being personally served with the divorce complaint (or 30 days after out-of-state service). (N.Y. C.P.L.R. § 320 (2021).)
The type of response will depend on whether the case is contested or uncontested.
If your spouse doesn't respond in time, you may request a default divorce judgment. (N.Y. Dom. Rel. Law § 211 (2021).)
After you've filed and served the initial forms referenced above, your work is far from over. New York requires a veritable boatload of additional forms you'll need to file before you can complete your divorce. The requirements may vary, depending on your county.
Here's some of the additional documentation you may have to provide, as listed on the court's website:
Some of the forms you may have to submit for your divorce will require information regarding your finances, such as income and expenses. You'll want to be as thorough as possible, so it's a good idea to gather this documentation in advance, rather than trying to hunt for it while you're filling out the forms.
There's also something else to consider. This article has focused mostly on getting an uncontested divorce in New York. As you can see, the process is complicated even when there's nothing to fight about. But the complexity increases dramatically when there's a disagreement on one or more issues, and contested cases can take anywhere from several months to well over a year to reach conclusion.
The point is that while filing for divorce on your own is possible in New York, it might not always be the best idea. Even with an uncontested divorce, hiring a lawyer (or at least using an online divorce service) may be worth it just for the peace of mind that comes from knowing you've completed all the forms properly. And if your situation or finances are complicated, you should at least consult with an attorney before you sign a settlement agreement.
If you and your spouse can't agree on the issues—particularly if you have minor children, own significant assets, or your spouse has already hired a lawyer—getting legal representation is almost crucial. Navigating the divorce process in a contested case would require familiarizing yourself with New York's multitude of divorce laws, including the Rules of Evidence. That's a heavy lift for a non-lawyer. A qualified divorce attorney 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.