Guiding You Through the Divorce Process One Step at a Time
It is a new year. You have probably made some resolutions or goals for yourself and your family. Perhaps this has led you to think about the state of your marriage, and whether you are happy, safe, fulfilled, or still in love with your spouse. Depending on your answers, the word “divorce” may have crossed your mind.
Reciting the word divorce is probably enough to make you nervous and queasy. The process of going through a divorce can cause feelings of anxiousness, loneliness, or being “in the dark.” The process does not have to be a scary one; rather, the more knowledgeable you are about the process, the better equipped you will be throughout from start to finish.
Now that you have said the “D” word out loud, you want to know what to do next. The first step is to search for an attorney who practices family or domestic law. While any attorney can handle a divorce case, I am sure you would prefer an oral surgeon perform your root canal than a dermatologist. Once you find 1-3 attorneys you wish to meet with, make the call and schedule a consultation. Whether you know at this time that you are ready to proceed with a divorce or merely need some information on what the future may hold for you post-divorce, it is important to meet the attorney with whom you may at some time be working, to see if you are a good fit with each other. You need to feel comfortable with this attorney, such that you can ask questions, review documents, and communicate about your case. Not all attorneys and clients are meant to work together.
Your meeting is set, now what should you expect? Make a list of initial questions you have, whether it be concerns of custody, finances, housing, pets, infidelity, abuse, employment, to discuss with the attorney. Keep in mind the initial consultation will be 30 to 60 minutes and your entire case cannot be addressed in detail.
Once you decide to hire an attorney, you will enter into a Fee Agreement for payment of services. Make sure you understand the work that is to be billed against your fee deposit and what expenses you will be responsible for outside of the fee deposit.
Now you are ready to start the process. First, your attorney will draft a Petition for Dissolution of Marriage in the county in which you or your spouse has resided for 90 days, and if you have children, where the children have resided for 6 months. The Petition contains the basic information for you, your spouse, and any children you have together. While Missouri is a “no-fault” state, Missouri requires the party filing the case to declare the marriage is irretrievably broken. This is what needs to be proven to the court, in that there is no likelihood the marriage can be preserved. The attorney will prepare a cover sheet and certificate of dissolution of marriage as well as a set of financial documents, called a Statement of Property and a Statement of Income and Expenses. All assets and debts you have with your spouse or had prior to the marriage must be identified. Missouri is a fair and equitable state, meaning that the division of property and debts must be distributed in a fair and equitable manner. This can consider marital misconduct such as infidelity and financial abuse during the marriage.
The pleadings are filed with the court, with a filing fee, and your case is assigned its unique case number and division number which identifies the Judge who will be overseeing your case.
Once your case is on file a summons will be issued for your spouse to be served with a copy of the initial pleadings. Service of process can occur either by a sheriff’s deputy or by a special process server. Alternatively, if you and your spouse are on good terms, s/he may agree to sign an acknowledgment, waiver of service, and entry of appearance form avoiding formal service of process. Your spouse has 30 days in which to file an Answer to your Petition and file his or her own set of financial documents.
From there, if you have children, you will be working on a proposed Parenting Plan which will set forth legal and physical custody provisions. Missouri requires divorcing parents to take a Parent Education Class, which is a 2-hour class you are responsible for completing. This class is not taken with your spouse.
You may be required to exchange certain documents with the other side, such as tax returns and pay stubs; or you may wish to subpoena certain records from your spouse’s employer or banking institution. This is part of the discovery process.
Most likely, you are about 60 to 90 days invested into the divorce at this time. While many divorce cases reach a resolution or settlement, it is typical for your case to be set for at least one settlement conference, often 2 to 3, whereby the attorneys meet with the judge assigned to your case to discuss the facts of your current situation and attempt to address any issues that are not resolved. The judge will provide guidance to assist the attorneys in reaching a resolution.
The entire process from start to finish can take anywhere from 4 to 12 months depending on the complexity of the case or the animosity that ensues. On average, most contested cases take around 9 months to complete. Despite possible feelings of anger, sadness, fear of the future, or distrust of your spouse, keep in mind what it is that you want at the end of the case and try to stay focused on that. There are no winners or losers in divorce. Neither party will get everything s/he wants whether the case is settled by an agreement being reached, or a trial, where the judge decides all issues in your case. While trials are what lawyers are trained for, for the litigant, it is costly, time-consuming and has an unknown result.
Each divorce is different because your facts are unique to you. However, the process by which a person gets divorced, from start to finish, is much the same from one person to the next. Understanding the process and what to expect each step of the way is crucial to your own peace of mind and wellbeing. Your attorney is there to represent your best interests, and part of that is making sure you understand the process. If you don’t know something, ask. You and your attorney are a team throughout this process.
Should you need the advice of a divorce and family law attorney or have questions or concerns about your situation, know that we are here to help and willing to discuss those issues with you.