Navigating The Legal Divorce Process: What Happens After a Divorce is Filed
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By DivorcedMoms, Senior Editor - November 16, 2013 - Updated July 05, 2016

fail to protect.jpgFiling for a divorce means stepping into the world of the Family Court System. It is a world of legal rules and, at times extreme emotional stress. It can change the way you live, the way you think and the way you do things.

Ignorance of what takes place in the Family Court System and how to take care of yourself can be the mistake that kills your chances of a successful post-divorce life.

Knowing when or if you should divorce means having a comprehensive understanding of exactly what it means to divorce. Unless you are in a situation where divorce can be handled in a civil manner between you and your spouse having full knowledge of what to expect in a high conflict divorce scenario is the only way you will be able to protect your legal rights.

Below is a loose outline of what happens during the divorce process. I say loose because, each state and local district handles divorce differently. Regardless of your state’s divorce laws and your districts legal procedures, you will experience each step in some form or another.

Steps in the Divorce Process:

File for Divorce:  

A divorce or dissolution usually begins with the filing of a form, typically referred to as a petition. This must be filed with the court that deals with marriages in the county where you live, which may be called the Family Law Court. After the petition has been filed, a copy must be served on (or delivered to) your spouse.

Divide Marital Property:

You will need to either work out an agreement on how your marital property is to be divided or argue about it in divorce court. Courts prefer that the parties work things out for themselves, and some states or counties require a mandatory mediation, which means meeting with a neutral third party who will help you resolve conflicts over who gets what. If the parties can’t agree on a way to divide their property, the court will decide. How your property is divided depends on whether you live in an equitible distribution state or community property state.

Distribute Marital Debt:

Debts incurred during the marriage need to be divided between the spouses along with the property. Joint debts may be deducted from the amount of property the spouses own together or some debts may be considered the responsibility of only one spouse. This depends on the system your state uses for dividing property.

Negotiate Spousal Support:

Support paid by one ex-spouse for the support of the other used to be called alimony, but is now often called spousal support or maintenance. The laws for spousal support vary a great deal from state to state, and you should be sure you know what your state requires. Spousal support can be awarded to both husbands and wives.

Decide Child Custody/Visitation:

The single most important thing parents need to work out in a divorce or dissolution is the way they will continue to raise their children, and it’s always best if they can work out this plan cooperatively. Some states call this a parenting plan and no longer use terms like child custody and visitation.

There are many questions that must be resolved, such as where the children will live, how much time they will spend with either parent, where they will spend holidays, or which parent will make decisions about the children. One or both parents might make legal decisions, such as where the children will go to school and what medical care or medication they will receive. Parents also have to resolve issues about the religious training and activities of the children.

If the parents can’t agree on these issues, the court will consider the best interests of the children in resolving the conflicts. The court will look at the gender of the parents and children, their physical and mental health, emotional bonds, the effect on children of changing their living situation, and—if a child is around 12 years or older—the child’s preference.

The court also considers practical matters such as the ability of the parents to provide the necessities of life, such as shelter, food, and clothing. Court orders involving children are never final. They can always be changed if the best interests of the children require it.

Calculate Child Support:

After a divorce or dissolution, both parents remain responsible for supporting the children. Divorcing parents need to decide how they will divide up the childcare expenses. There are several factors to consider in working this out, such as the income and assets of the parents and whether one parent has primary childcare responsibilities. If the parents can’t work this out agreeably, the court will make the decisions and order the parents to comply with court ordered child support.


Divorce mediation is a process where the divorcing parties sit down with a mediator (a neutral thirdparty) to work out and resolve conflicts over property division, finances, debts and support and/or child custody/visitation. If the state is paying for the mediation, the mediator often reports back to the court with information about the mediation session(s). The parties can also arrange their own privately paid for mediation sessions, which will be completely confidential. Decisions reached in mediation aren’t legally binding, but can be included in the court’s final order or decree. Attorneys usually don’t attend mediation sessions, though they may be available to advise the parties on legal issues.

Final Judgment of Divorce:

The final judgment of divorce is the final order of the court that legally ends the marriage. The final judgment can also contain legally binding orders about other issues, such as child custody, child support, visitation, spousal support, property division, and how property division is to be carried out. It can also restore the pre-marriage name to one or both spouses.

The steps that I’ve shared above may seem simple, cut and dry but if you are divorcing a spouse who is angry or hurt over your decision to divorce or is unable to accept the idea of divorce you will become involved with a system in which no one wins but the system.

Understanding the emotional, financial and legal aspects of divorce before deciding to divorce means you will be making an informed decision about how and with whom you want to spend the rest of your life.

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