What Are in Divorce Papers?

People involved in a divorce will often talk about “divorce papers,” and it can be confusing to know exactly what they are talking about.

Petition for divorce

A petition is basically a formal request for a court to dissolve a marriage

When someone says they are delivering divorce papers, the “papers” almost certainly include a petition for divorce.  

A petition is basically a formal request for a court to dissolve a marriage.  

It can also be called a “complaint,” which is the term used in most lawsuits.  

A petition must state the grounds for divorce.  Today, almost every petition is based on “no-fault” grounds like “irreconcilable differences” or “irretrievable breakdown” of the marriage.  This simply means that neither spouse is claiming the other one did something legally wrong. Instead, both spouses want to just break off the relationship and go their separate ways.  

A petition can be a very simple form that most people can fill out without help.  For example, the State of Idaho provides a simple PDF that parties without significant disputes can fill out themselves.  It includes information on things like residence, children, significant assets, and debts.

The three-page form can be filed by one spouse and includes places where the spouse can ask the court to order the other spouse to split certain assets or to order the other spouse to pay a debt.  

In more complicated cases, a petition will take up dozens of pages with detailed information about the couple’s assets and why they should be split a certain way.  

Divorce settlement

Some states, like California, will grant an almost immediate divorce to spouses that have not been married very long, do not own a home, do not have much money, and do not have children.  In situations like this, an actual final divorce settlement is filed with the petition itself. So the “divorce papers” will usually be a divorce petition plus an agreed-to settlement.  

In other cases, a spouse may give the other spouse “divorce papers” that include both a petition and a proposed settlement.  In that case, the spouses may not have actually agreed to the deal yet, but if one spouse takes the initiative to prepare the papers they can be complete just as soon as the other spouse files them.  

Other documents

Divorce papers often include other formalities related to the court process

Divorce papers often include other formalities related to the court process.  

For example, in most cases, each spouse has to be “served” with the petition.  This process usually begins with a document called the “summons.” This document usually has required information that somebody being sued would want to know.  It often tells them when they need to appear in court, and that they should not destroy evidence.

Divorce papers may also include preliminary orders of various sorts.  A spouse may seek a restraining order to prevent having contact with the other spouse. Once a spouse may seek temporary custody.  

A homemaker spouse may seek an order forcing their breadwinner spouse to pay some support money until the divorce is finalized.  

Divorce Decree

The final order from the court granting a divorce is usually called a decree.  

This document is sometimes called a divorce paper, and it is usually accompanied by final orders addressing things like separation of marital assets and child custody.  

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