You need to realize upfront that divorce is state-specific, meaning each state has its own divorce laws. So what happens in the course of dissolving your marriage will depend on where you live. However, there are general concepts that will likely apply no matter where your divorce takes place. Some of the more common ones are outlined below.
Contested divorces are those in which the couple hasn’t resolved their differences prior to filing for divorce. If you and your spouse are at loggerheads over issues like child custody and parenting time (visitation), spousal support (alimony), and dividing your property, your divorce may take a year or more to conclude.
Note, however, that this doesn’t mean you can’t settle your dispute after you file for divorce. You can and probably will, considering the vast majority of divorces are resolved before trial. The key to making your life easier is to reach that settlement sooner than later.
Divorce is not a winner-take-all proposition. The goal of divorce law today is to reach a result that is fundamentally fair to both spouses. The problem, of course, is that people usually have contrasting views as to what’s fair, and often that’s based on the emotional element that exists in most divorces. But the judge’s job is to take emotion out of the equation. In the end, this normally means neither spouse is going to be thrilled with a court’s decision—so you need to adjust your expectations accordingly.
For example, when it comes to custody and parenting time, courts are obliged to act in the best interest of the child. Despite how parents may feel about each other, they need to come to terms with the fact that the court's goal is to have both parents actively involved in making the decisions regarding a child’s upbringing. And if the child is primarily residing with one parent, the court will give the other parent appropriate visitation time. But be advised that in making its determinations about parental rights and responsibilities, the court will take into account the parents’ character and stability.
If you’re seeking alimony, you need to understand that divorce law has evolved to a point where a court is less likely to award long-term alimony than in the past. The emphasis now is on having both spouses become as self-sufficient as possible, under the circumstances of each case. So courts typically award alimony for the period of time they believe it will take to achieve that result. That’s not to say courts never award long-term alimony, but it’s become more the exception than the rule.
Another major aspect of divorce is the dividing marital property. Most states utilize a concept known as “equitable distribution.” This method of allocating assets looks at the particular facts of each case in determining what constitutes a fair division of property. This is different than distribution in “community property” states, which is based on the principle that assets acquired during the marriage should be divided on a 50-50 basis.
Let’s face it, divorce is rarely going to be pleasant. But hiring the right lawyer can mean the difference between a relatively smooth, manageable experience, and a nerve-racking disaster.
First and foremost, find a lawyer who practices divorce law on a regular basis. It’s a complicated field, and you need someone who’s thoroughly familiar with the applicable statutes, case law, and court procedures in your state and local area.
Additionally, avoid retaining a lawyer who promises to “bury” your spouse, or get you "everything." Attempting to use the courts to wage war will almost always end up hurting you. It will cost you a small fortune in legal fees because of the additional—and unnecessary—work typically generated by these attorneys as part of their scorched-earth tactics. This only serves to prolong your case, and will likely alienate the judge. And if a judge determines you acted in bad faith, it could impact the final outcome, including possibly obligating you to pay your spouse’s legal fees. As indicated above, when all is said and done, judges will render a decision they believe is fair to both you and your spouse. So the odds are you’ll gain nothing by employing a “shark” to represent you.
Finally, make sure you retain an attorney you’re compatible with. Some lawyers are detached and business-like. Others tend to be more empathetic. Choose one with a personality that suits your needs. Remember, you’ll probably be working with your attorney for months or longer. So a good fit is crucial to reducing the anxiety that comes with the divorce process.
If you expect your divorce will be a withering, drawn-out process, you should know that you can possibly avoid this by utilizing one of several types of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR). The purpose of ADR is to assist couples in resolving their differences without going to court.
There are three main avenues available to you if you choose ADR: collaborative divorce, mediation, and arbitration. Each has its pros and cons, but an increasing number of couples are opting for one of these routes in lieu of immediately filing a petition (complaint) for divorce with the courts. A knowledgeable divorce lawyer will be able to give you in-depth information about which aspect of ADR may be right for you.
For a greater understanding of what to expect in dissolving your marriage, consider consulting with a local divorce attorney.