Although some divorces are very simple and can be handled with a minimum amount of red tape and delay, such as when there is no significant property involved and the couple has no children, most divorces are far more difficult and can take many different courses. The following, however, is a basic outline of the divorce process.
One spouse contacts a lawyer, who assists in the preparation of a petition (or complaint), the legal document that sets forth the reasons why the divorce should be granted and outlines the relief sought.
The petition is filed with the court and served on the other spouse, together with a summons that requires that spouse's response.
The served spouse must respond within the time limit prescribed or it will be assumed that he or she does not contest the petition, in which case the petitioner will be granted the requested relief. The response, or answer, must set forth the relief that the answering spouse requests.
The parties, through their attorneys, engage in "discovery," during which they exchange all documents and other information relevant to deciding the issues in the divorce such as property division, spousal support, child support, etc.
The parties may attempt to reach a settlement based on the full disclosure to each other of all relevant information. The settlement process can be initiated voluntarily or facilitated by the parties' lawyers or a neutral third party, such as a mediator.
If a settlement is reached, the agreement encompassing the terms of the settlement is submitted to the court at an informal hearing. The judge will ask both parties a few basic factual questions and whether they understand and freely entered into the agreement.
If the judge approves the agreement, he or she issues a divorce decree that includes the terms to which the parties agreed. If he or she does not approve it, or if there has been no agreement, the case will go to trial.
At trial, the attorneys present the evidence and arguments for both sides, and the judge decides the unresolved issues, including child custody and visitation, child and spousal support, and property division, and grants the divorce.
Either or both parties can appeal the judge's decision to a higher court.
The entire process can take from as little as a few months to as long as several years. The main determinant of how smoothly the process will go is the level of cooperation between the parties and their willingness to compromise.