Deciding to end your marriage isn't easy. If you're thinking about divorce, you'll need to decide what you want in terms of child custody, alimony, and asset division. You'll also need to choose whether you want to hire an attorney or handle a divorce on your own.
This article provides an overview of the divorce process in Arizona. If after reading this article you have questions, you should contact a local Arizona family law attorney for advice.
Either spouse can file for divorce (called a "dissolution of marriage") in Arizona. Your dissolution begins as soon as the dissolution paperwork is filed with the court.
The initial dissolution paperwork includes a Petition and Summons. The dissolution petition tells the court and your spouse what you're seeking in the divorce. For example, your dissolution petition will include any requests for alimony (also called "spousal maintenance"), dividing marital property, child custody, child support, and attorney's fees and costs. The spouse filing for divorce must serve the dissolution petition on the other spouse through a process server or sheriff.
The spouse served with the dissolution petition (called the "respondent") can either agree to all terms in the petition or file opposing papers. There are strict deadlines for filing a response to a dissolution petition in Arizona. In most cases, the respondent has 20 days to file a response after being served; 30 days if the responding spouse lives out of state. If you're unsure about these timelines, contact a local family attorney for advice.
When one spouse fails to file a response to a dissolution petition, a court can enter a default judgment against the non-responsive spouse. A "default judgment" means that the court moves forward on the case without hearing from the non-responding spouse and grants all of the filing spouse's requests from the divorce petition.
A judge may enter temporary orders (also called "pendente lite orders" in Arizona) in divorce cases involving kids or where one spouse has unmet financial needs. Temporary orders can resolve custody, child support, alimony, and support issues like who gets the marital home and who pays the mortgage while your divorce is pending.
Couples can reach their own agreements on temporary orders or leave matters up to a judge to decide. Temporary orders last until they are modified or your divorce becomes final. See Ariz. Rev. Stat. § 25-315 (2020).
When parents divorce, they'll have to decide how to manage parenting time (also called "physical custody" and "visitation") and parental responsibilities (also called "legal custody"). If parents can't agree on legal and physical custody, a judge will make a custody decision based on the child's best interests.
A parent with physical custody lives with the child and makes day-to-day decisions about the child's welfare, like what the child will eat and wear, who the child can play with, and when the child will go to bed. Parents can share physical custody (called "joint physical custody") or one parent might have sole physical custody rights. Even when parents share physical custody, they won't necessarily have equal time with the child. For example, under a joint physical custody schedule one parent may have 3 nights per week with the child and the other parent may have 4 nights per week.
A parent with legal custody can make major medical, educational, religious, or legal decisions on the child's behalf. As with physical custody, parents can also share legal custody rights. However, when parents can't agree on an issue in the child's life, like where the child should go to school, the primary custodial parent (parent with primary physical custody) has the final say.
Your child support award is based mostly on each parent's income and the number of children involved. Arizona has enacted child support guidelines for judges to use when deciding child support. Arizona also has a child support calculator where parents can estimate their support obligations. In most cases, a judge will issue a child support award that follows the guidelines. However, in cases where a child has significant medical needs or expenses, a judge can increase a child support award and deviate from the guideline amount. See Ariz. Rev. Stat. § 25-320 (2020).
After you've filed and served your divorce papers, held temporary orders (or before a second temporary orders hearing), you'll need to gather evidence to prove your case at trial or resolve things at mediation.
This process of gathering evidence is called "discovery." During discovery you can ask your spouse to answer written questions and to give you certain documents. Depending on the complexity of your divorce and your assets, discovery can be a short or long process.
If you hire an attorney, your lawyers will submit and receive information on your behalf during discovery, but will need your input along the way. Your attorney may use the following types of discovery in your divorce:
Once you've gathered some evidence in your case, you may feel ready for trial. Most judges won't schedule a divorce trial until the spouses have tried mediation. At mediation spouses try to settle their case with the help of a neutral, third-party mediator. Mediators can be lawyers, but a mediator can't give you legal advice. It's up to you if you settle at mediation. However, spouses who reach their own agreements have more control over their case than if a judge decides everything at trial.
If you and your spouse can't resolve your case, you'll have to go to trial. Trial is your chance to tell your story to the judge. You'll tell your story through your testimony, the testimony of other witnesses, and documents called "exhibits." In many cases, trial can be costly and unpleasant.
It's hard for lawyers to predict the outcome of a trial because every case is different. A trial a judge – who is a stranger and who may have a viewpoint, a temperament, and values very different from yours – will divide your income and assets and decide when each your and your spouse can see your children. A judge will enter a final order that you and your spouse must follow.
Sometimes, a trial does not end your divorce case. If either spouse is unhappy with the outcome of the trial, he or she may appeal the decision in a higher court. An appeal adds more time and expense to the divorce process and is hard to win.
The cost of your divorce will depend on the complexity of your case and your family's unique circumstances. Specifically, cases where a couple has no children and few assets are cheaper than cases where a couple owns a business, several homes, and can't agree on child custody.
Couples who handle their divorces pro se (without attorneys) and can settle quickly can get divorced relatively inexpensively. If you hire an attorney, your attorney's fees will add additional costs to your case. Also, if your case is extremely complex, you may have expert costs for custody evaluators, forensic accountants, and/or business valuators.