The decision to end a marriage is among the most difficult that two people may ever make. In many cases, divorce is the wisest action for couples in crisis who wish to build a better future for themselves and their children. As with any major decision, becoming better informed about the options, the process and the implications of filing for a divorce helps people make the best choices.
For couples with children, learning more about the entire process helps them clearly explain what is happening and allay their children’s fear of the unknown. Additionally, being familiar with the issues they face regarding child custody and visitation enables the parents to make decisions that will positively impact their children in the years ahead.
The articles that follow provide in-depth information for anyone who is considering ending a marriage. They present the advantages and disadvantages of divorce, a dissolution timeline and alternatives to divorce such as legal separation or annulment. By bringing clarity to complicated issues, they also help people make critical decisions regarding legal representation.
As a legal resolution to an unsuccessful marriage, divorce provides couples with a definitive document that specifies the terms and conditions of their marital dissolution. If the couple has children in common, the divorce process determines parental roles and responsibilities after the divorce. It also sets guidelines for dividing community property and debt. Legally binding divorce documents protect the interests of both parties in the divorce as well as safeguarding the welfare of the children.
Specifically, divorce provides the following advantages:
- Putting an end to marital obligations: From paying income taxes to maintaining a home mortgage, a divorce removes the joint financial responsibilities that are a part of marriage. A divorce decree frees former spouses to file income taxes separately in the future. It determines who will maintain the house payments and whose credit score will benefit from the responsible repayment of debts. Similarly, having a divorce decree protects one person from any financial obligations the other party enters into after the divorce is finalized.
- Deciding child custody: An important aspect of divorce for those with children is making definitive provisions for child custody. Ideally, each attorney represents the client’s preferences in non-combative negotiations, but if that isn’t possible, the judge will base a decision on the children’s best interests. The parents must also agree upon and document a specific visitation plan for the children and the non-custodial parent, allaying the need for future contention.
- Determining division of property: Dividing marital property fairly is a major concern, and divorce attorneys are experienced in negotiating settlements that are acceptable to both parties. In the absence of a settlement, the judge determines a fair division of possessions. Depending on the laws of the state, such factors as when the couple acquired the property and who has the greatest need for it post-divorce may be relevant.
- Determining child support and/or spousal maintenance: The majority of states mandate the amount of child support the non-custodial parent must pay, but unique custody arrangements may require adjustments that a judge is best qualified to determine. Also, if the judge decides that one spouse is entitled to maintenance payments, a divorce decree will include that stipulation in writing, making it legally enforceable.
- Diffusing emotions with legal guidelines: Divorce provides guidelines for people who are in crisis. The prevailing laws instill reason in situations where emotions could otherwise create more problems than solutions. Family law attorneys and the court system provide families with clear parameters for resolving their difficulties.
When contemplating divorce, people may focus on the perceived benefits of dissolving their marriages. Divorce involves a lot of upheaval, however, so it’s important to consider the disadvantages of the process as well.
- Hurt and Anger Often Continue – Just because a divorce is done and over with doesn’t mean that a couple will magically start being civil with one another. In cases where children are involved, in particular, it is often an uphill battle for spouses to be polite and decent to each other, and this may continue long after the dust settles.
- Expense – The cost of a divorce varies based on a number of factors. Even if you and your spouse are in agreement about the most important things and want to get through the process as smoothly as possible, you can expect to spend several hundreds of dollars between attorneys and court fees. If businesses, considerable assets, major debt or other complicating factors are involved, the costs can soar into the thousands or tens of thousands.
- Reduced Standard of Living – Married couples typically have two-income households, so they share the costs of keeping everything up and running. After a divorce, the same incomes now need to support two separate households. In turn, each ex-spouse has to adjust to having less “wiggle room” in terms of money.
- Unresolved Emotional Consequences – Whether a divorce is amicable or contentious, it’s going to be painful for everyone involved. All too often, two people who used to love one another dearly become bitter rivals. Even if both parties are confident that a divorce is necessary, both are likely to continue to mourn the end of the marriage for a long time.
- Consequences for Children – Extensive studies have been performed regarding the effects of divorce on children. Even if a divorce is on the amicable end of the scale, it’s going to cause major upheaval for the kids. The impact of a divorce on kids continues long after it is finalized.
- Shattered Social Circle – During a marriage, a couple becomes a team. They typically develop friendships with other couples and people in the community. In many cases, people who were originally friends with both spouses end up taking sides. A formerly tight-knit social circle can be torn asunder during a divorce, which leaves both spouses feeling even lonelier.
How Long Does A Divorce Take?
The divorce process can be unpleasant and stressful, and it is not surprising that one of the primary concerns of couples seeking to end their marriage is often the length of time it will take. There are no hard and fast rules regarding the length of the divorce process. In addition, many states require a waiting period before a divorce can be finalized, so even the simplest divorce may take a minimum of a two or three months. That being said, there are a few issues that can impact the length of the proceedings.
A mediated or negotiated divorce will be less costly and less time-consuming than one that is contested in court. If the parties are not willing to compromise, the parties may end up arguing over every small detail and asset, which can significantly delay the divorce process. Also, many states impose a minimum waiting period on spouses seeking a court-ordered decree of divorce. On the other hand, if the parties are able to come to an agreement on the division of assets and debts, custody of children and payment of spousal and child support, the process can be relatively straightforward.
The length of the divorce proceedings, even if uncontested, can often be greater if there has been considerable wealth accrued before or during the marriage. A lengthier divorce may also be necessary if one of the marital assets is a business owned by one or both spouses that requires an appraisal. The existence of pre- or postnuptial agreements regarding property allocation may make this process shorter and less argumentative although it is not uncommon for spouses to dispute the validity of these types of agreements in order to try and obtain a larger settlement.
The length of time it takes for a divorce to be finalized can vary significantly based on the actions of the divorcing spouses, the size and complexity of the marital estate, and the laws in the state where the couple resides. A simple and uncontested divorce may take only a few months whereas a more complicated divorce can take six months to a year. In situations where one or both spouses have substantial assets and are unable or unwilling to come to an amicable resolution, it is not uncommon for a divorce to take many years to finalize.
Divorce Timeline At A Glance
Divorce involves a lot of upheaval and is considered to be among the most stressful experiences that a person can go through, and even an uncontested divorce can be convoluted and complex. One way to get through it more easily is by knowing what to expect. While the precise process often varies depending on state laws and the specific circumstances of the couple in question, it generally unfolds in the following way:
- Divorce proceedings are initiated when a lawyer who has been retained by one spouse creates a petition, or complaint, on the spouse’s behalf. The complaint outlines why the divorce is needed and how the spouse would like to handle things like child custody, spousal support and division of property. It is essentially a wish list of what the filing spouse would ideally like to get out of a divorce. The complaint is then filed with the appropriate court.
- Depending on the jurisdiction, either the court or the filing spouse’s attorney ensures that the other spouse is served with the complaint. A summons requiring the spouse to respond within a specific period of time – typically within three weeks – is served simultaneously.
- The other spouse can either agree or object with the terms of the complaint. If no response is given before the deadline expires, it is assumed that the other spouse is in agreement. In the event that the other spouse objects, he may file a response of his own that includes his preferences regarding division of property, child custody, spousal support and other aspects of the divorce.
- To arrive at a lawful and fair outcome in the divorce, attorneys for both sides exchange documents and information regarding property, income, assets, debts and other factors. The way in which this evidence is used largely depends on the jurisdiction in which the divorce has been filed.
- Once all of the relevant information has been gathered and exchanged, many divorcing couples attempt mediation or try to settle their cases to avoid a potentially long, expensive trial. In several states, mandatory mediation laws require couples to try to settle their cases without going to court.
- In the event that mediation takes place and a settlement is reached, it is presented to a judge during an informal hearing. The judge looks over the agreement, makes sure that both parties understand the implications of it and have them sign it.
- Assuming that a settlement is reached and the judge approves it, a divorce decree is issued and the process comes to an end. If the judge is unable to approve the settlement, or if the couple is unable to come to an agreement during mediation, the divorce proceeds to trial.
- During the ensuing divorce trial, both sides have the opportunity to present arguments and evidence to the court. The unresolved issues that prevented a settlement from being reached, which typically include things like child custody and visitation, child support, spousal support and division of property, are considered and decided by the judge. Once the judge reaches a decision, a divorce decree is issued, and the divorce is granted.
- Technically, one or both spouses may appeal the judge’s decision. However, it is extremely rare for such a decision to be overturned by a higher court. Therefore, it is often not worth it to attempt to appeal unless egregious errors have been made. It should also be noted that settlements that are reached through mediation may not be appealed later. Whether they are happy with the outcome or not, a divorcing couple generally has to live with the outcome of the divorce settlement or judge’s verdict.
SEE ALSOGet more in-depth information about all the different steps in a divorce by visiting our complete divorce process guide.
Can I Afford to get Divorced?
The decision to divorce is never a simple one, and this decision can be made even tougher due to the financial realities of divorce. Beyond the cost of getting divorced, couples often struggle with the expense of maintaining two separate households.
How Much Does It Cost to Get Divorced?
The cost of getting divorced varies significantly based on the size and complexity of the marital estate and the parties’ willingness to be cooperative. A simple, uncontested divorce can cost a few thousand dollars, compared to contested divorces that may cost tens of thousands of dollars. The main expenses associated with divorce proceedings are legal fees and court filing fees. Depending on the divorce, other expenses may include fees paid to accountants, financial planners and investigators. In one report, it was stated that the cost of the average divorce is between $15,000 and $30,000.
Other Financial Aspects to a Divorce
Whether a couple can get divorced depends on more than just the expenses directly associated with the divorce filing. The ability to afford divorce also depends on the couples’ ability to handle the increased expense of living separately. These expenses may include moving costs, health care costs, the expense of additional childcare, and rent or a mortgage on a home for each spouse. Expenses associated with owning and maintaining two separate households include increased property taxes, utilities and insurance. Alimony and child support payments may add to the financial strain caused by increased living expenses. In situations where one spouse will be reliant upon spousal and child support payments, the ability and willingness of the paying spouse to honor these awards should be factored into the financial decisions regarding divorce. The disposition of assets, including marital homes, investment accounts and retirement accounts may lead to significant financial and tax consequences that affect the financial stability of both former spouses on an ongoing basis.
Strategies to Mitigate the Expense of Divorce
As a general rule, a contested divorce is more expensive than an uncontested divorce. The best way to reduce the cost of divorce is for each spouse to come into the proceedings with a willingness to compromise. Spouses that bring anger and a desire for revenge frequently amass significant legal fees because they use the court process and their attorneys to punish the other party. To reduce further the expense associated with divorce, each party should try to come to a basic understanding regarding custody of children and division of assets without significant legal intervention. In some instances, mediation can be a useful tool to reduce the cost of obtaining a divorce.
Couples can take a number of steps to make divorce more affordable. One of the simplest steps is reducing spending and household expenses. This may involve identifying and eliminating shopping habits motivated by anger, sadness and depression. A difficult step couples can take is selling the marital home. Oftentimes, a spouse will hang on to a home that is too large and too expensive because they are too emotionally invested in the home to consider the long-term financial impact of keeping the home. If selling is not necessary, couples can explore refinancing options. To ensure financial stability after divorce, it is important for couples to have a clear understanding of the amount of debt the couple has and establish a plan for paying off those debts quickly. Low-interest loans from family members or borrowings or distributions from retirement plans may be a way to erase outstanding debts quickly.
Financial difficulties are a frequent reason why couples pursue divorce. Unfortunately, the financial picture after divorce can be equally or more difficult. Those seeking divorce can take many steps during and after the divorce process to increase their chances of long-term financial health.
Dissolving a marriage is a complicated process and often leaves couples with more questions than answers. Every state enforces different statutes regarding grounds and waiting periods for divorce, among other aspects. When spouses understand their rights, they can identify an appropriate course of action. While no two situations are alike, all couples ending a marriage can benefit from having reliable legal advice on the divorce laws for the state in which they are filing.