Like all lawsuits, a divorce requires the filing of a complaint by one party–the plaintiff–against another party–the defendant. The defendant typically files an answer and counterclaim against the plaintiff. This makes the divorce “contested.” Upon filing, the case is assigned to a judge and magistrate who will decide the issues in case.
The first step in most cases is the issuance of a “temporary order.” A temporary order or “T. O.” is an order that is issued by a magistrate pertaining to issues of child custody, child support, visitation, spousal support, and payment of marital obligations. The temporary order is issued approximately 5 or 6 weeks after the filing of the case and will be in effect as long as the case is pending.
A pretrial conference will usually be scheduled before a judge within the first few months. The conference is held in the courtroom and gives the attorneys an opportunity to present the issues to the judge with the parties present. The judge comments upon the issues and attempts to move the case toward resolution or trial.
Beginning early in the case, the lawyers will engage in a process known as discovery. Discovery is the stage where the relevant facts are uncovered through a variety of techniques including oral depositions, written interrogatories, requests for production of documents, subpoenas, request for admissions, and inspections. The information obtained is necessary for the informed resolution or trial of the case.
Divorce cases contain three major categories of issues: the allocation of parental rights and responsibilities (custody), division of marital property, and spousal support.
The allocation of parental rights and responsibilities involves question of custody. The custody of a child may be given to one parent (a sole residential parent) or to both parents through a shared parenting plan. Child support, which is determined by a statutory formula, must be calculated. Visitation rights (in the case of a sole residential parent) must be addressed. The health insurance needs of the child will also be provided for, along with the designation of which parent receives the tax dependency exemption and child credit.
The division of property requires the proper categorization of all property owned by either of the parties as marital or separate property. Property must be valued, which may require the use of appraisers or accountants, and all liabilities must be determined. A balance sheet is ultimately prepared that suggests the proposed distribution of property.
Spousal support involves many factors such as the length of the marriage, the physical and mental health of the parties, the assets and liabilities of the parties, and the ages of the parties. Vocational experts may be required to provide expert testimony on the employability of a party. Ultimately the case either will be settled by agreement or will be tried before a judge. There are no juries in divorce cases. In the case of a trial, the judge hears all the evidence and testimony of witnesses and issues a written decision that is appealable by either party.