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How to file for divorce

A step-by-step guide on how to navigate filing for divorce.

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Filing for divorce is a legal process. If you don’t follow the proper procedure, your case may be delayed or ultimately dismissed. Here’s a rundown of what you’ll need to do to file for divorce correctly.

How to file for divorce

Here is a step-by-step breakdown of how to file for divorce:

1. Find where to file

You’ll need to file for divorce in the state and the county where you or your spouse live. Visit your local county clerk’s office’s website or in-person to determine your state’s minimum residency requirement and if you have a mandatory separation period.

When the time comes, you’ll need to file for divorce with your local county clerk or through an online divorce service.

Can I file for divorce online?

While online divorce requirements vary by state, many couples can file for divorce online if they have an uncontested divorce. Instead of navigating the waters yourself, online divorce services guide you through the divorce process from beginning to end, including what forms to fill out and how to file them with the local court.

To file for an online divorce, you’ll need to:

  1. Determine if you qualify. To get an online divorce, you’ll need to know where your spouse is, both need to agree to the divorce, and you’ll need to agree on the full terms of your divorce.
  2. Take an online survey. Answer a set of questions and the service will fill in the appropriate forms.
  3. Review the completed forms. Make sure that the information on the documents is correct.
  4. File the paperwork or have a service file on your behalf. Print out the completed forms and submit them to the court.

2. Separate

If your state has a separation period, you’ll need to live apart before you file. You might consider a written separation agreement to submit it as evidence that you’ve fulfilled the separation period requirement.

Some states can grant a divorce if the couple has lived under the terms of a separation agreement for a specific time period.

3. Prepare a divorce petition

Gather all the documents and information you’ll need to file divorce papers. Although requirements vary from state to state, you’ll generally need:

  • Name and address of you and your spouse
  • Date and place of marriage
  • Information about minor children of the marriage
  • Grounds for divorce
  • Acknowledgment that you’ve lived in the state for the minimum required amount of time
  • Declarations about how you wish to handle property, debt, custody, child support and visitation

4. File divorce petition

Your state may allow you to file the divorce petition electronically. Some states only accept notarized paper submissions. Check with your local county clerk for your state’s filing process.

You’ll generally need to make three copies of the divorce papers: one for yourself, one for your spouse, and the original for filing. The county clerk will stamp all three copies.

5. Ask for temporary orders

In your divorce petition, you can ask the court to enact temporary orders regarding family and financial issues. A few temporary orders include:

  • Who has primary custody of the children
  • Visitation schedule for the noncustodial parent
  • Child support payments
  • Spousal support payments
  • Waiting period waiver based on family violence

6. Serve your spouse with divorce petition

Each state has a specific procedure for serving legal documents. If your divorce petition isn’t delivered legally, you’ll run into issues later.

Depending on where you live, you may serve your spouse divorce papers by:

  • Hand-delivery. Your spouse will need to sign the Acceptance of Service document.
  • First-class mail. Your spouse will need to sign the Acknowledgment form and mail it back to you.
  • Third-party. A sheriff or service, and in some states, a friend or relative, will serve the divorce petition to your spouse. The third-party will sign and mail an Affidavit of Service.
  • Publication. If you can’t locate your spouse and you’ve received permission from a judge to serve your spouse through a publication, such as the local newspaper, for a specific time period.

7. File proof of service and wait for divorce petition response

Submit your proof of service to the court clerk, such as the Acceptance of Service, Acknowledgment or Affidavit of Service document. If you did served by publication, you’ll need to show the court a copy of the notice and submit a statement from the newspaper verifying the ad.

The amount of time your spouse gets to file a response to your petition varies by state.

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Final steps of a divorce

Most states allow a spouse 20 to 30 days to respond to a divorce petition. If your spouse doesn’t respond within the time frame, you can request a default divorce. The court will review and most likely approve the terms you outlined in your original divorce petition.

If your spouse doesn’t contest the divorce, you’ll go straight into writing a divorce settlement and typically have a faster divorce. You’ll submit all documents and set a date for your divorce hearing. At your hearing, a judge may ask you a few questions and issue your final divorce decree.

On the other hand, if your partner contests the divorce, both parties will prepare for the preliminary declaration of disclosure, where you’ll present all of your assets or property. If you can’t negotiate a settlement, you’ll go to trial, present your cases and the court will enter the final judgment of your divorce.

Bottom line

An uncontested divorce is easier to navigate than a contested divorce. And you can probably skip the time-consuming and costly trial. Or you may even be eligible to do the entire process online.

Be sure to check your state’s divorce laws by contacting your local county clerk’s office. For more information on divorce, start by reading our divorce guide.

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