Along with the emotional and practical issues involved in ending a marriage, the divorce process itself requires navigating the legal system in Vermont. While that might seem overwhelming, it doesn't have to be all that difficult, particularly if you and your soon-to-be ex can cooperate. Here's what you need to know to get started with a Vermont divorce.
In order to file for divorce in Vermont, either you or your spouse must have lived in the state for at least the preceding six months. Also, you won't be able to get your final divorce until one of you has lived in the state for a year. (Vt. Stat. tit. 15, § 592(a) (2023).)
As in all states, you need a legally accepted reason (or "ground") for divorce in Vermont. The state allows divorce based on both "fault" grounds and "no-fault" grounds.
In a no-fault divorce, you don't need to claim (or prove) that your spouse was guilty of some wrongdoing. However, unlike many states, Vermont doesn't allow you to file for a no-fault divorce by simply claiming that you and your spouse are incompatible or that your marriage has broken down. Instead, you must meet both of the following requirements:
If your spouse denies the length of your separation or the likelihood of reconciliation, a judge will have to conduct a hearing to determine where the truth lies. The judge may decide to postpone the hearing for 30-60 days and suggest that you and your spouse get marriage counseling in the meantime. (Vt. Stat. tit. 15, §§ 551(7), 552 (2023).)
Vermont courts have held that one spouse doesn't necessarily have to vacate the family home in order to meet the separation requirement. You might qualify even if you and your spouse continued to live in the same house or apartment, as long as you slept in separate bedrooms and lived separate lives. (Scott v. Scott, 586 A.2d 1140 (Vt. 1990).) But the judge will look closely at the circumstances before deciding whether you weren't really living apart—so it's a good idea to speak with a lawyer if you're going to try this arrangement.
Vermont allows divorce based on the following fault-based grounds:
Although it's not technically a fault-based ground, you may also file for divorce based on the fact that your spouse is permanently incapacitated because of a psychiatric disability and has been confined to a psychiatric hospital for at least five years. (Vt. Stat. tit. 15, § 551; Winslow v. Winslow, 251 A.2d 419 (Vt. 1969).)
Ordinarily, it doesn't pay to file for divorce on fault grounds, because it tends to make the divorce more contentious and makes it less likely that you and your spouse can work out agreements on other marital issues. The more there is to fight about in a divorce, the longer the process takes and the more expensive it becomes (think legal fees).
If you can file for an uncontested divorce (known as a "stipulated divorce" in Vermont), the entire process will be much easier, quicker, and less expensive than a traditional contested divorce. But for a divorce to be truly uncontested, you and your spouse must have a marital settlement agreement that covers all of the issues involved in ending your marriage, including:
You'll include the provisions of your settlement agreement in the stipulation forms to be filed with your other divorce papers (more on that below).
If there are any issues that you can't agree on, your case will at least start out as a contested divorce.
The main form for starting the divorce process is the complaint. The spouse who files this form is the "plaintiff," while the other spouse if the "defendant." There are separate versions of the form, depending on whether you have minor children with your spouse. Among other things, the complaint tells the court what you're requesting in your divorce, such as child support or orders related to your property. The complaint form also includes the summons, which is the official notice to your spouse about the divorce. You'll also have to fill out various separate forms providing certain information about you and your spouse.
If you're filing for a stipulated divorce, you'll include the following additional forms along with the basic divorce papers:
With a stipulated divorce, you may also file a Stipulation and Motion to Waive Final Hearing to ask the judge to finalize your divorce without requiring you to show up in court.
Once you've completed all of the required forms, the next step will be to file them with the court clerk's office in the Family Division of the Superior Court in the Vermont county where you or your spouse lives. (Vt. Stat. tit. 15, § 593 (2023).)
You may bring the divorce papers in person or mail them to the court clerk's office, or you may file the paperwork online with Vermont's electronic filing system.
Be aware that courts charge fees to file legal papers. Vermont's filing fees for divorce (as of 2023) are $90 for a stipulated (uncontested) divorce or $295 when you file for a contested divorce. There's a small additional fee for electronic filing.
If you can't afford to pay court costs, you may request a waiver by filing an "Application to Waive Filing Fees and Service Costs."
After you've filed the divorce papers, pay attention to the next steps that might be needed to move your case along, depending on the circumstances.
When you've filed for a stipulated divorce, there's no need to go through the formal "service of process" to deliver the divorce papers to your spouse. Just make sure that you both have complete copies of all the documents.
Otherwise, you'll need to use one of the legally acceptable ways of serving your spouse with the paperwork. The easiest way to do this is to hand over the papers and have your spouse sign and return an Acceptance of Service form (which you'll then file with the court).
If your spouse won't agree to that simple method, and you have minor children, the court clerk will take care of serving your spouse with the divorce papers. If you don't have children, you'll have to serve the documents by one of the following methods:
If you haven't been able to find your spouse, ask the court clerk about alternate methods of service, such as publishing a notice in a newspaper. (Vt. Court Rules Fam. Proc., rules 4.0(b)(2), 4.1(a)(2) (2023)
Whichever method you use, you must complete the process of serving the documents within 60 days after you filed the complaint. If you miss that deadline, the judge may dismiss your case. (Vt. Court Rules Civ. Proc., rule 3(a) (2023).)
Here again, there's no need for an additional step to respond to the divorce complaint when you've filed for a stipulated divorce in Vermont—because you already included your spouse's answer along with the other initial documents.
Otherwise, your spouse ordinarily will have 21 days to reply to the complaint after being served with the divorce papers. (Vt. Rules Civ. Proc., rule 12(a)(1)(A) (2023).) Usually, your spouse will reply with an "Answer" that agrees or disagrees with statements or requests in the divorce complaint.
If your spouse doesn't file an answer, the judge may sign a divorce judgment that grants what you've requested.
If you have minor children, you and your spouse must each file financial affidavits with the court and exchange them with each other. (Vt. Rules Fam. Proc., rule 4.1(b)(4) (2023).) Even if you don't have children, the judge might still require you to submit and exchange these affidavits. There are separate forms for income and expenses, and property and assets. You'll also likely have to attach documentation (such as pay stubs) verifying some of the data you provide.
When you're filing for a stipulated divorce, you should include these forms along with the other documents that you file with the complaint. Otherwise, you'll need to submit them before your first case management conference or at least seven days before the first court hearing in your case.
It's a good idea to gather as much of this information in advance as you can, because it's important to be as thorough as possible in completing these forms. You must be totally honest, because a spouse who fails to disclose all the requested information could face penalties, such as fines and possibly jail time.
When you and your spouse have minor children, the judge may order you to participate in the Coping With Separation and Divorce (COPE) program, administered through the University of Vermont.
Mediation During Your Vermont Divorce
Anytime after you've filed for divorce, the judge may decide to require that you and your spouse to participate in mediation of any disputed issues. You or your spouse may also request a mediation order. But the judge won't order mediation in certain circumstances, including when:
(Vt. Rules Fam. Proc., rule 18 (2023).)
As you head toward the finish line in your divorce, you should be aware of provisions in Vermont law that could delay getting to that point:
(Vt. Stat. tit. 15, §§ 551, 554, 592 (2023).)
Aside from the mandatory waiting periods, other things can affect how quickly you'll be able to finalize your divorce. When you've filed for a stipulated divorce, it shouldn't take long to get your signed divorce decree (unless you have to wait to meet the residency or separation requirements), especially if the judge has granted your request to waive the hearing. The actual amount of time it takes may depend on your local court's caseload and when a judge will be available to review your documents.
Even in contested divorces, most couples manage to settle their disputes at some point during the process, usually with the help of their lawyers. But it can take several months to get to that point, particularly in cases with thorny issues. If you and your spouse can't reach a settlement, you'll have to go to trial to have a judge resolve your disputes for you. This is by far the longest and costliest route to obtaining your divorce judgment, and can take up to a year or more.
If you have a settlement agreement and a relatively uncomplicated case, you should be able to handle filing for divorce yourself. A do-it-yourself divorce will be the cheapest route to ending your marriage, but it will take some time and attention to detail to make sure you have all the right forms, have filled them out correctly, and have followed all of the steps and requirements for divorce in Vermont.
Short of having an attorney represent you in the divorce, there are other ways of getting help with the process. For example, you could do one or a combination of the following:
Without an agreement, you'll follow a traditional contested divorce route—which will almost certainly require hiring a lawyer who can navigate the legal process for you.