For many couples, the idea of going through a divorce can be daunting. If you or your spouse are considering filing for divorce or were recently served with dissolution paperwork, you may have a number of questions about the process, how you can protect your rights, interests and your future. It is important to know what to expect during the process.
Following is an overview of the divorce process in Washington State.
Determine Your Approach
The first step in divorce in Washington State is to determine what style of divorce yours will be. This can be a difficult decision to make, as you may be unsure how your spouse will respond. For many, it takes months or years of deliberation, fact-finding and consideration for what is best for your family. Washington is a no-fault divorce state, meaning that either spouse can choose to dissolve the marriage. Working with a Divorce Coach can be very helpful to understanding how to talk with your spouse, address safety concerns and plan intentionally.
From mediation to high conflict, a Divorce Coach can help you determine if you need to hire an attorney, or if you and your spouse can attempt to amicably proceed through the process of mediation. Mediation is a form of resolution which aims to avoid court intervention, save legal fees, and maintain peaceful relations between the divorcing parties. A skilled mediator will be able to discuss with you and your spouse the cost-benefit analysis for your particular needs and goals for your family.
Type of Divorce
If both parties agree not to proceed with litigation, then your divorce will be considered uncontested. In that case, your spouse will sign a ‘joinder’ to the petition, and you may work together on the specifics of your dissolution (asset division, financial arrangements and child custody). In an uncontested case, each spouse will sign the complete set of final pleadings, to finalize your case after the statutory waiting period in Washington State (91 days) which memorializes your agreements reached to dissolve your marriage.
Most uncontested divorce cases take a few months to finalize, based on the 30-day service period, and slow court dockets. Contested cases can take 90 days or even a year or two to resolve depending on the complexity of the case, the local court docket, and attitude of the parties towards continued litigation.
Petition for Dissolution of Marriage
The first formal step in the divorce process in Washington State is to file a Petition for Dissolution of Marriage. There are a variety of detailed forms, which must be completed to accompany the Petition. Typically one spouse files a petition for marital dissolution with the local court where at least one of the parties resides. The filing spouse is thereafter referred to as the “Petitioner.” The Petitioner then serves a copy of the petition on the opposing spouse (thereafter referred to as the “Respondent”). If the Respondent disputes the allegations in the petition, the s/he may file what’s called an “answer” to the complaint. The forms must be submitted to the Superior Court of Washington. In the Petition for Dissolution of Marriage and related forms, you will supply personal information for each spouse. Preparing these documents is something you should do with the help of a specialist or an attorney, to ensure everything is completed thoroughly and properly.
Talk with your spouse regarding the type of divorce you want to have. If you’ve opted not to have this discussion in advance, the dissolution documents will need to be delivered to your spouse. There are a variety of ways this can be done. Contrary to TV and the movies, it is not necessary to hire a process server if your spouse will accept service of the documents via email. Your Divorce Coach, mediator, or attorney can help you determine how to deliver the documents to your spouse in the manner best suited for your family and your case.
Both parties to the dissolution are required to exchange financial documentation relating to net worth, debts, property held, etc. These financial documents, along with other relevant documentation and evidence are referred to as “discovery.” Negotiations between the two parties typically occur after both parties have all discovery necessary to make an informed decision on how to divide up marital property. If the parties are able to reach a resolution, the case can be settled without a trial. If the parties cannot agree to terms of a settlement, the case may be set for mediation, arbitration, or trial.
At the conclusion of a contested dissolution case, the judge will ultimately decide how debts, spousal support, and property should be allocated. If children are involved, the court will also determine child custody, child visitation, and child support. Finally, the court will issue a written judgment detailing all of the above. This judgment may be enforced later by either party if the other spouse fails to comply with the terms.
One of the best ways to work out disputes in divorce is by working with a mediator. This process is where both parties work with a neutral third-party mediator who helps the couple work towards a mutually acceptable resolution. Many couples are able to come to agreements on all aspects of the divorce working in mediation, and a family law attorney will review the final agreements before they are filed in court. During mediation, both parties will work to come to agreements on a variety of issues, including asset division, spousal and child support, child visitation and custody, and more. If the parties are unable to come to an agreement, they may choose to engage legal counsel.
Draft Parenting Plan and Division of Assets
If you and your spouse have minor children together, it is useful to work with a Divorce Coach to educate you both, and to provide best practices on how to minimize stress and anxiety for the children. Your mediator / coach can also provide tools and resources to assist the parents in communication with one another, to better serve their children during and post-divorce or separation. Many parents find these helpful resource preserve their relationship and help them co-parent more effectively.
Division of assets and liabilities, custody matters, decision-making for the children, and who will keep the family home are often points of contention in divorce. Your mediator will help you and your spouse work through each issue, to find mutually-agreeable ground for you both. There are many aspects to consider, such as length of the marriage, ability of each spouse to work, health limitations, tax consequences, assets attained prior to the marriage, assets attained and built during the marriage, child-centered custody arrangements, child support, etc., etc.
If there are issues that cannot be resolved in mediation, your case may become a contested divorce. At this point, you and your spouse may each choose to retain legal counsel. With an attorney, you can file for Temporary Orders, which will determine things such as a temporary parenting plan, temporary financial support, and living arrangements, until the final court ruling, wherein final agreements will be ruled upon.
It is important to select a family law attorney who is knowledgeable, experienced, and who you feel represents you well. Your choice in attorney is important for many reasons. This person will help you understand the process, your rights, will ensure that the division of assets is fair and equitable, and that your parenting plan and order of child support accurately represent your unique family needs, goals, and desires. Choose an attorney whose communication style and approach to your case feels comfortable to you.
While mediation may not solve all the outstanding issues, it is often very helpful in minimizing the issues to be brought before a judge. Prior to trial, a ‘settlement conference’ is required by the State of Washington, prior to the actual court trial. Making decisions about your family and your future is preferable to the chill of a courtroom, with a judge who is unfamiliar with you, your family, and your case, making decisions on your behalf. Settling out of court is highly recommended— it saves a tremendous amount of time, money, and emotional overwhelm.
If it is impossible to reach agreement(s) during the process of divorce, your case will be heard in family court. Family court will hear arguments from each side, and will make decisions on behalf of the parties. Family courts are very busy; it can often take up to a year to get a trial date. Once the trial occurs, both parties will present their side of the case to the judge, and the judge will make decision(s) on all outstanding issues. While sometimes necessary, trials should be avoided, as they are lengthy, costly, emotionally exhausting, and rarely resolve the issues in a satisfactory manner to the parties. The process of trial is draining on the entire family in many ways.
Whether you and your spouse come to an agreement through mediation or after a judge rules on the case, the last step is an entry of final orders. In Washington State, a minimum of 91 days after the day the petition was filed, the court will issue a Decree of Dissolution, and a Findings of Fact and a Conclusions of Law. However, that doesn’t mean that all divorces in Washington are finalized after 91 days. Disagreements on a wide range of divorce-related issues can lengthen the divorce process. If children are involved, a Final Parenting Plan, Final Order of Child Support and Child Support Worksheet will also be entered.
Your Trusted Partner
Whether you’re contemplating a divorce, have already started the process, or are far into the proceedings, do you wish you had someone to share with you the inside scoop on how to save money, time and emotional energy on your divorce?
Our team is available for Support On-Demand to discuss the many scenarios, options, and implications of separation or divorce, via telephone or videoconference during this time. Feel free to get in touch with us; we are here for you!