Decipher the Legal Terms of Your Divorce Papers

Decipher the Legal Terms of Your Divorce Papers

Being handed divorce papers can be heartbreaking.  On the other hand, many people find it to be a liberating experience.  Either way, the papers signify that a couple’s intimate relationship is now about to be subject to scrutiny in court.   

A divorce petition is asking a court to terminate a marriage

A divorce decree breaks the legal bonds that tie a married couple together.  A petition, sometimes called a complaint, is simply asking the court to grant the divorce decree.  The petition must have some grounds for divorce. For a long time, the only grounds for divorce were so-called “fault” grounds.  This included things like abuse and adultery. A couple could not simply decide to divorce for no reason. Now, that has changed and most divorces are considered “no fault.”  A couple will usually cite “irreconcilable differences,” which basically just means they no longer want to be married but neither spouse necessarily did anything wrong.

You should always check to see if “fault” is alleged in the initial divorce papers.  That would probably mean your spouse is not just asking for an amicable split. Fault today is largely only alleged so that the judge will do more for the victim of the bad behavior.  Sole custody may be awarded to one parent because the other was abusive, for example. Or one spouse may have to pay back marital funds that were spent while having an affair outside the marriage.  

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Issues like property division and child custody can be addressed as well

Depending on the state and the situation, some divorce papers might also include a demand for specific settlement items.  Some initial divorce papers will simply ask for a divorce and say the couple has worked out their property split and ask for the judge’s approval.  In other cases, the initial papers may just say that the couple has significant assets and the person seeking divorce will be asking the court to split those assets.  Some spouses will do even more homework up front and will list out all the known assets of the couple along with a request to be granted certain assets in the divorce.  

Child custody may also be addressed.  Again, some divorce petitions will simply note that they are going to seek joint custody.  Other divorce papers will be more specific and lay out the exact custody arrangement they are requesting with specific reasons to back up the request.  

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Issues like child custody can be addressed

Think before you respond

The required response time varies from state to state, but 20 days is a fairly common timeframe.  After that, the party that filed the papers often will ask for extensions of time. Unless there is some pressing reason, most judges will give you plenty of time to hire a lawyer and file a thoughtful response so you do not have to rush out an incomplete response.  The best way to react in many cases is to attempt to work out a settlement with the other spouse before engaging in a costly court battle.

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