Basic Information


The topic of divorce would seem to require no introduction. Divorce refers to the often messy and painful end of a marriage. For better or for worse, divorce is a very common event these days. Most everyone has been touched by it, either by going through it themselves as a spouse or a child, or knowing someone who has gone through it as a spouse or as a child. Despite widespread familiarity with the effects of divorce, the details of the divorce process are less well known. In this section, we discuss the important concepts and procedures involved in the divorce process with the sincere hope that educating people regarding this information will help minimize pain.

You can feel like the loneliest person in the world when you are contemplating divorce. It's therefore important to keep divorce in perspective so that it doesn't crush you:

Divorce is common

Fast Facts: Learn! Fast!

What are the steps involved in a divorce?

  • The divorce process is started when one spouse files a legal document with the court called the 'complaint' or 'petition' requesting a divorce.
  • The court schedules a time for an initial hearing after receiving the complaint and both spouses must receive a copy of the complaint and the summons to appear at the hearing.
  • At the initial hearing a judge reviews the complaint and answer documents, interviews the divorcing couple, and makes temporary but binding decisions about how the couple may behave towards each other until a more permanent settlement is agreed upon.
  • After the initial hearing, a waiting period must occur before the divorce can be finalized. This waiting period varies by state.
  • The couple will need to decide on how they will divide joint property and debt, and if minor children are involved, they will also have to decide how custody will be arranged, and what sort of financial support will be put into place.
  • If the couple cannot successfully decide on how to divide their assets, debts and child responsibilities on their own, the state will decide for them.
  • The divorce becomes final after the waiting period is over, and a final hearing has occurred during which the judge approves any negotiated settlements or imposes a settlement if one has not been reached.

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What is involved in dividing property and assets during a divorce?

  • Before property and debt can be divided, it must be first inventoried and appraised.
  • Each spouse's income should be accurately reported.
  • If either person has assets like a business, or intellectual property, this should be reported and appraised.
  • All bank, investment and retirement account balances should be reported and include who has access to what money in these accounts and each partner should verify that no monies have been removed from joint accounts without their knowledge and consent.
  • All debts should be reported.
  • If a house or other real estate properties are owned, the current value of those properties needs to be assessed, and the amount left on the mortgage for that property (if any) needs to be figured out.
  • Other owned property such as automobiles/trucks, boats, jewelry, collectibles, household goods, furniture, and art, should be listed, and the value of each item should be determined or otherwise agreed upon by the couple.
  • Couples should then decide how all of these assets will be divided.
  • If they can't decide on their own, the court will decide for them.
  • In equitable distribution states, the court examines the information available to it concerning the divorcing couple, including each partner's income and employment prospects, custody arrangements if children are involved, and what property was owned by each partner prior to the marriage, and then attempts to divide property in a way that it finds to be fair and just in light of this information. The decision might be for a 50/50 split, but it might just as likely be for a 60/40 division, or a 75/25 division.
  • Community Property states (including Arizona, Louisiana, New Mexico, California, Idaho, Washington, Wisconsin, Texas and Nevada) start with the assumption that property and debt should be equally divided between the partners without regard to their different needs, responsibilities or earning powers.

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What types of child custody can be agreed upon during a divorce?

  • Legal custody involves being able to make binding decisions on behalf of your child, such as whether a medical procedure should be attempted, or what school the child should attend.
  • Legal custody doesn't have anything to do with whether the child lives with you.
  • Physical custody involves being allowed to have the child live with you and being responsible for taking care of the child.
  • Parents who have no physical custody arrangements do not have a legal right to have their children live with them.
  • Physical custody can be divided to reflect the percentage of time each parent will be responsible for actually taking care of their children.
  • Physical custody may be shared equally, or one parent may take on 100% of the physical custody with the other parent being guaranteed visitation rights.
  • Joint physical custody tends to work best when both parents continue to live in the same town so that shuttling children between households isn't difficult, and school arrangements can remain undisturbed.
  • If parents cannot come to agreement over custody issues, the courts will impose a binding plan for custody on the parents.

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What is child support and alimony?

  • Child Support involves taking wages from a parent to insure that minor children can receive adequate care.
  • Spousal Support (also known as alimony), involves taking wages to insure that an economically disadvantaged spouse can continue to live comfortably after marriage has terminated.
  • Child support payments are routinely granted as part of modern divorce and are determined according to rules under state law.
  • States vary as to when child support payments end, with varying states terminating support at ages 18, 19 and 21 or tying child support termination to a child's high school graduation.
  • Spousal support used to be routinely granted, but has recently become somewhat harder to obtain.
  • When granted, it is more likely to be time-limited in nature and designed to provide a transition period during which employable skills can be obtained, rather than the open-ended guarantee of income it used to be.
  • Child and spousal support agreements are hard to change once they have been agreed upon and endorsed by the courts.

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How can I emotionally cope with a divorce?

  • The first thing to know about divorce is that it is common and nothing to be ashamed of.
  • Divorce involves a very real end, but it is also a very real new beginning for those involved.
  • Divorce can trigger all sorts of unsettling, uncomfortable and frightening feelings, thoughts and emotions, including grief, loneliness, depression, despair, guilt, frustration, anxiety, anger, and devastation.
  • It is important to let grieving over the ending of the relationship happen.
  • People often move back and forth between a shocked, numb state of denial, depression, and/or minimization of the importance of the loss, and outraged anger, fear, and vulnerability.
  • Most grieving people find that, little by little, they are ready to move on with their lives.
  • Prioritizing and checking off list items helps make sure that all necessary chores get accomplished, and helps to generate a feeling of control over what might otherwise be experienced as unmanageable demands.
  • Put old photographs and mementos away where you don't have to look at them all the time.
  • Start paying your own bills and handling those aspects of life that your ex-spouse used to do for you.
  • Limit your contact with your ex-spouse.
  • Tell trusted family and friends that you are getting divorced, and request assistance from these trusted people as they are able to offer it.
  • Divorce support groups provide a face-to-face place where people can come together to educate and support one another.
  • Psychotherapy and counseling can also be excellent options for obtaining divorce support.
  • Maintaining (or starting) healthy routines is a great means of self-support.
  • Keeping a journal of your thoughts and feelings as you go through your adjustment to being divorced can provide many benefits.
  • Explore one or more new causes, clubs, fields, hobbies or projects to focus on the future.
  • Avoid dangerous and self-defeating coping behaviors, such as drugs, alcohol, gambling, jumping into a new relationship, etc.

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What steps can I take to make my divorce go smoothly?

  • In preparing for a successful divorce, the first step is to educate yourself about the rules, previous court decisions, and laws governing divorce in your state.
  • Divorce is a formal legal process and it is generally wise to hire a state-licensed lawyer specialized in divorce to represent you.
  • The lawyer can advise you about how to best navigate the divorce process, advocate for your rights and share what typical settlements look like and how they are best arrived at.
  • Get a jump-start on the process by beginning to assemble important documents like your marriage certificate, deeds, titles, bank, investment and retirement account statements, credit card documents, and loan papers as soon as divorce is imminent.
  • Real estate and other valuable property (jewelry, automobiles, boats, art, etc.) should be professionally appraised and you should store copies of this documentation in a safe and secure place where your soon-to-be-ex-spouse cannot get to it. It may prove critical if your spouse denies that property exists, or attempts to say it is worth less.
  • Work with your spouse to arrive at a specific and detailed plan to divide assets and determine child custody arrangements, keeping in mind that whatever plan is decided upon will have to be approved by the court.
  • It is important to be civil, polite, honest and well-groomed during all divorce communications, especially when in court or interacting with a judge, mediator or arbitrator involved in the case.

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How can I help my children cope with our divorce?

  • Divorce is very hard on children because it changes their entire lives by changing their families, living conditions and their ability to trust in the stability and reliability of support from their parents.
  • Children can become upset, angry, ashamed, embarrassed and outraged, or might also become fearful and withdrawn or anxious and clingy.
  • They may express these emotions by going back to old behaviors, such as bed wetting or thumb-sucking, or by having temper tantrums, talking back to authority, cursing, impulsiveness, drug use, or running away.
  • They may also feel an inappropriate responsibility to 'hate' one parent and 'protect' the other.
  • Many children initially act out, but eventually end up adjusting to their changed circumstances. In the future, they may approach relationships with some caution, but generally are ok.
  • Other children react profoundly to divorce and end up coping in dysfunctional and self-destructive ways and go on to have continuing life problems.
  • Others may appear to adjust to divorce at first but go on to show emotional and relationship problems later in life that are likely tied to the divorce experience.
  • A young child's reaction is often to think that he or she must have caused divorce to happen. Because of this, it is important for both divorcing parents to make it clear to their children that the decision to divorce was not caused by anything that the children did, and that both parents will continue to love and protect their children despite the changed circumstances.
  • Keeping children's living circumstances and routines consistent is another important way parents can help shield them from the disruptive effects of divorce.
  • Regardless of how they are feeling, parents should do what they can to remain calm, to avoid arguing, and to avoid criticizing the other parent while around their children.
  • "Triangulation" is a therapy term used to describe a situation where divorced parents come to pass messages through their children rather than speaking directly with one another or ask their children to spy on the other parent and report back, or use the children in ways to manipulate their ex-spouse. This behavior should be avoided.
  • Parents should also invite children to talk, listen to what they have to say, and provide love and emotional support during this difficult time.

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How can I move on after a divorce?

  • Divorce offers people the opportunity to reflect on and learn from the mistakes they have made in order to reduce the chances that they will make those same mistakes again.
  • Either alone (via journaling), or with the assistance of a trusted friend, family member or therapist, talk or write out the history of the marriage, from beginning to end.
  • Work to identify and describe the big points of conflict where compromise proved difficult or impossible and try to figure out where your personality and values clashed with those of your spouse and where they were in harmony.
  • Knowing this information will help you to figure out what qualities you will want in a future relationship and what qualities you will want to avoid.
  • The next challenge is to place the divorce in the past and decide to move forward with life.
  • The new chapter in life can only start when divorcees reach a point where they are ready to 'turn the page' and explore what their new life can become.
  • Being able to move on with life is easiest to accomplish when one is hopeful, positive, and looking toward the future, rather than being stuck focusing on and thinking about the past.
  • Some people, places and things will cause one to remember the past marriage and keep things focused on the past. It can be a good idea to put such things away so that they don't automatically trigger old memories. When that isn't possible or they can't be avoided, work to create new memories around those people, places and things.
  • Exploring interests, old and new, pulls your attention into the present, creates opportunities for creativity, meaningful social interaction and new relationships, and promotes personal growth.

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