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What Papers Do I Need to File to Begin Divorce Proceedings?

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Post Author Image This article was reviewed and approved for publication by Attorney Charlotte Christian.

Most divorces involve a divorce complaint (which outlines the reasons for divorce) and a summons, which notifies your spouse that you have filed for divorce. While these are the typical papers you need to file to begin divorce proceedings, what you need ultimately depends on the state. The reason for your divorce and the existence of children and assets can also affect how you file. A divorce lawyer will know what you need and the best course of action for your situation.

Where to File Papers for Divorce

Because divorce filing requirements differ by state, it’s important to know where you need to file for divorce. Typically, you file in the state where you currently live. However, residency is about more than where you live and it depends on how long you have lived there.

States have residency requirements when filing for divorce. Requirements can vary from a few months to a year.

What if You Don’t Meet Residency Requirements?

If you haven’t been living in your current state long enough, you can typically file for divorce in the state where you previously lived if you meet its residency requirements.

Since where to file deals with unique laws in each state, you can always get help from a family law firm. They can explain where to file your paperwork and what goes into filling out these forms. If you lie or make assumptions, you could face perjury charges complicating matters.

The Family Court Cover Sheet Starts the Process

Once you know where to file, the first document you may need to complete is the family court cover sheet. This essentially identifies you, your spouse, and your family. The name is apt – it acts like a cover letter.

The Complaint Includes the Details of Your Divorce Proceedings

This is sometimes called the petition for divorce and is the core of your paperwork, as it declares why you want a divorce.

It typically includes:

  • Additional identifying information for you and your spouse
  • Residency in the correct county and state
  • Your place and date of marriage
  • The reason for your divorce
  • What you hope the divorce to accomplish

Your divorce complaint is where you swear that you meet residency requirements and that other information in your paperwork is true. As a result, make sure you have accurate answers.

Information You’ll Need to Fill Out Your Forms

The information you provide may depend on your family and situation. For example, you can look at Alabama’s PS-08 form, which is for a relatively simple divorce complaint: no minor children, assets, or debts for the court to address. If you have children or property that require consideration in your divorce, you may need a different form.

Consequently, your complaint could contain any of the following information:

  • Information about minor children
  • Custody and visitation details
  • Child support information
  • Alimony
  • Assets and personal property
  • Additional orders
  • A name change request

In short, the divorce complaint is the most comprehensive paper needed to begin divorce proceedings. The more complicated your situation, the more information your petition for divorce will probably contain. The specific information you need to submit also depends on if you are seeking an uncontested or contested divorce.

What’s an Uncontested Divorce?

An uncontested divorce means your spouse is not going to fight you on the divorce, and you won’t face litigation to settle the case. For instance, you may have already discussed the situation with your spouse, and they have agreed not to fight the divorce filing. In other words, the divorce is amicable.

Uncontested divorces also happen when the other party isn’t in the picture or doesn’t respond to a petition for divorce. This is also called a default divorce. An example is if your spouse walked out on you.

What Is a Contested Divorce?

As the name suggests, this is the opposite of an uncontested divorce—you and your spouse don’t agree on certain things. What you disagree on can vary from specific terms of your divorce to the divorce itself. As you can imagine, contested divorces can have extensive paperwork.

In contested divorces, you may face an uphill battle. You and your spouse may even need to go to court to hash out the details. If you suspect a contested divorce is likely in your case, consider consulting a divorce attorney. They can act as a mediator and represent you in all communications, negotiations, and court appearances.

You Could File a Joint Petition for Divorce

Rather than filling out a complaint to your spouse, a joint petition for divorce is just what it sounds like you and your spouse fill it out together and file it, agreeing to dissolve your marriage.

Typically, joint petitions for divorce include similar information that a divorce complaint does. You’ll still need to explain the grounds for your divorce and provide information about residency and the record of your marriage. Included with a joint petition is an agreement on how you plan to divide property or handle issues, like child custody and child support.

The Summons Notifies Your Partner of Divorce Proceedings

Once you have completed the petition for divorce, you file it with the court, and then you need to fill out the summons. The summons, with the divorce complaint attached, is delivered to your spouse, telling them that you are filing for divorce and providing them with copies of the court documents.

The summons also lets your spouse know the steps they need to take. The time your spouse has to respond to the summons depends on the state.

Serving the Divorce Papers to Your Spouse

While movies and TV shows sometimes depict spouses delivering divorce papers directly to each other, this isn’t normally how official paperwork is served. In fact, many states don’t allow spouses to deliver divorce papers at all. Instead, you’ll need to serve papers through a third party and create a record of your spouse receiving the paperwork.

Options for Serving

Check your state’s guidelines for serving papers. You will likely have more than one option.

Choices include:

  • Using a private process server to serve your spouse, typically at home or at work
  • Ask a third party, like a family member or friend, to deliver the papers and obtain your spouse’s signature acknowledging they received it
  • Mailing the divorce paperwork with certified mail and requesting a receipt
  • Paying a fee to the local sheriff’s office and having a deputy serve the documents

Sometimes, mailing papers or asking a third party to deliver them is not allowed. Private process servers and deputies are therefore commonly used, since they involve a disinterested third party serving papers in a very official capacity.

What if Your Spouse Refuses the Papers?

Dodging process servers or refusing to accept paperwork won’t change the fact that you are filing for divorce. Process servers are especially adept at finding ways to serve papers. In some cases, they don’t need to serve the papers to your spouse in person; they can simply leave them at their residence with another competent person. In extreme cases when a spouse avoids being served papers, notification of divorce is published in a newspaper.

Furthermore, if your spouse refuses to acknowledge or respond to the divorce papers, that doesn’t mean the case goes away. You can potentially receive a default divorce if your spouse fails to respond before your state’s deadline.

Response Papers Following a Divorce Summons

As already stated, the next paper needed to file to begin divorce proceedings is the response from your spouse. They can respond by agreeing to all your terms, or they can outline the points on which they disagree, like splitting property or custody. If you are in a contested divorce, this is where you’ll see some of the areas that will need negotiation. This is also sometimes called an “answer and counterclaim.”

You Can File for a Fee Waiver With Your Divorce Papers

Filing for divorce means paying certain fees. The initial filing varies by state but can usually cost a few hundred dollars.

If you can’t afford to pay certain fees, you can request a waiver. Some divorce complaint and response forms have sections dedicated to requesting a waiver or stating that you have difficulty paying. Others allow you to fill out a form declaring indigence. Check with your attorney to learn what fees you could waive.

What if You Need a Ruling Immediately and Can’t Wait for Divorce Proceedings?

Even simple divorces can take time, leaving couples in a holding pattern. In some cases, those seeking divorce need immediate action on certain matters due to disagreement. Examples include custody or financial support. For instance, sometimes you need to ensure there’s no gap in paying your mortgage. Other times, it’s to ensure the safety of you and your children in a toxic or abusive marriage.

One option is to talk to your divorce lawyer about obtaining a temporary order. The judge in your case then makes a ruling while divorce proceedings continue. The order lasts until your divorce concludes and you and your spouse have reached an agreement, which then replaces the temporary order.

Temporary orders in divorce cases can cover:

  • Custody
  • Visitation
  • Child and spousal support
  • Health insurance
  • Access to property
  • Debt payment

You can think of these like temporary truces between you and your spouse, setting up terms for dealing with everyday life while you work on the final terms of your divorce settlement.

You Could Get a Restraining Order

In dangerous situations, you can get a type of restraining order against your spouse called a protective order. In fact, you can obtain this type of order when you file for divorce and include it with the papers you serve your spouse. If you are escaping domestic violence, protective orders can provide an additional safeguard for you and your children.

In less dire situations, you can receive a temporary restraining order. These orders are sometimes specific to one type of action, such as barring your spouse from entering the home or accessing your accounts until the divorce ends. If you don’t trust your spouse to honor your space or wishes during the divorce proceedings, a temporary restraining order can force them to comply.

Can You Modify Divorce Papers?

Yes, with a motion to modify the divorce decree. If you and your spouse agree on the change to your divorce petition, you can file a joint petition or motion to modify the divorce paperwork. If you disagree, a judge may need to hear your case, with both sides presenting evidence.

Common reasons for modifying a divorce decree are custody and visitation. You can modify these aspects years after the divorce is final, since family dynamics and living situations naturally change with time. Child support and alimony are also common grounds for modifying divorce papers.

A Divorce Attorney Can Help You File Papers to Begin Proceedings

Paperwork is the foundation of a lawyer’s job, so they have no problem handling your divorce papers.

You can hire a divorce lawyer to:

  • Assist you with filling out the cover sheet, complaint, and summons
  • Ensure you file where you meet residency requirements
  • Investigate the grounds for your divorce
  • Compile evidence supporting your claims and requests
  • File your paperwork correctly and efficiently
  • Represent you in all official meetings and hearings
  • Negotiate with your spouse and their attorney in a contested divorce
  • Obtain temporary orders, restraining orders, or protective orders
  • File petitions to modify divorce papers and negotiate new terms

In other words, a divorce lawyer can assist with every step and piece of paperwork outlined here.

Reach out if You Want Help Filing Divorce Papers

Charlotte Christian
Divorce Attorney, Charlotte Christian

Check with your state and county for more information on what papers you need to file to begin divorce proceedings. Many states offer forms online, as well as checklists to prepare you for divorce.

To avoid mistakes or confusion, consult an attorney in Alabama. Ask for a case evaluation to learn more about costs, resources, and answers to common questions.

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