Represent Yourself in Divorce Court
The number of American marriages ending in divorce is high. The statistic has often been cited as 50%, although this figure is contentious, with some experts claiming the number is much lower, and others arguing that this is a conservative estimate. Regardless of the exact rate of divorce, it is important to understand the process of filing for and securing a divorce, particularly if a trial is necessary.
Some divorces are simple and even amicable, and parties may settle disputes out of court. If, however, there is hostility between parties or contentious issues, such as division of assets or child custody, parties may end up presenting their cases in court.
If parties to a divorce proceeding come to an agreement out of court, certain paperwork must be filed to make the divorce official. The exact forms will vary depending on the jurisdiction, but common required filings include:
- Petition for Dissolution of Marriage: states the reasons (usually very simple, such as "irreconcilable differences" or "infidelity") for the request for divorce
- Waiver of Final Hearing: signed by both parties; waives the right to a trial
- Settlement Agreement: signed by both parties; states the agreed-upon terms for dividing any assets the parties may share, such as who retains car titles, home ownership, etc.
If a settlement cannot be reached out of court, a trial may be necessary. In the case of a court proceeding, parties must file a Motion for Final Hearing with the court as well as a Notice of Final Hearing, a copy of which is delivered to the other party.
A divorce proceeding requires payment of a divorce filing fee, which will vary depending upon the jurisdiction. If a party cannot afford to pay the filing fee, he/she may file a Motion for a Fee Waiver. If approved by the court, the fee will be waived and the trial may proceed.
Because so many divorces occur and are heard in courts regularly, divorce proceedings are typically less formal than other trials. Nevertheless, formal or at least business-casual attire is appropriate. In addition, although parties to a divorce may feel hostile toward one another, it is important to maintain one's decorum in the courtroom, addressing the judge as "your honor" keeping emotions under control, and being polite and civil to court personnel and to the opposing party and his/her attorney.
Evidence to be presented at a divorce proceeding includes the following:
- Name and the name of one's spouse
- Addresses of each party
- Date of marriage
- Date of separation
- Residency: most states will grant a divorce only if the parties seeking the divorce have resided as a married couple within the jurisdiction for a stated minimum length of time
- Reasons for the dissolution of the marriage
- Agreed-upon points between the parties
- Points still in dispute between the parties
The party filing for divorce speaks first; the other party then has a chance to speak on his/her own behalf. Again, although feelings may be heated, maintain a sense of decorum and remember common courtesy; parties should not interrupt each other or the judge at any time.
Depending on the jurisdiction and on the complexity of the case, the judge may make his/her decision immediately. If there are points in dispute, such as division of certain assets, a judge may ask for additional information or evidence. A judge may also recess the trial and consider the parties' respective positions outside of the courtroom, with a final judgment entered later.
In some jurisdictions, parties filing for divorce may be required, either as standard practice or by a judge's decision regarding a specific couple, to attend mediation sessions. Mediation involves an unbiased third party, a trained mediator, who will attempt to help parties discuss between themselves the issues leading up to and currently in dispute regarding their divorce.
If after mediation parties are still unable to agree on terms for a divorce, after a mandated time has passed the court will take up the case again and make a final decision.
Divorce proceedings become much more complicated when the parties have a minor child. Clearly, the emotional toll on a child and his/her parents is great, and family counseling may be advisable.
Legally, numerous issues will arise. All states have standard tables to determine child support and post-secondary education cost responsibilities, which are based on parties' respective incomes or income potentials, as well as the child's contribution.
Custody and visitation issues, on the other hand, are a very subjective area; courts decide such matters generally with a view to what is in the best interests of the child. Success in such matters depends largely on a party's financial stability, health, emotional availability, and relationship with the child. Custody can turn on some of the most trivial matters so you need to make sure that you present the best case possible on this issue.----------------------------------------------------------------------------------
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