The divorce process can be highly emotional and traumatic for the parties as well as the children. Marriage partners often do not know their legal rights and obligations. Court clerks and judges can answer some of your basic questions but are prohibited from giving you legal advice. Only your lawyer can provide legal advice. Statutory requirements and court rules must be strictly followed or you may lose certain rights permanently. The Florida Bar recommends you obtain the services of an attorney concerning legal questions which include discussions regarding your rights in a divorce, your children’s rights, your property rights, and your responsibilities resulting from the marriage. A knowledgeable lawyer can analyze your unique situation and help you make decisions in your best interest and that of your family.
The regular dissolution process begins with a petition for dissolution of marriage, filed with the circuit court, in the county where you last lived together as husband and wife or in the county where either party resides. Either the husband or wife may file for dissolution of marriage and the petitioner must allege that the marriage is irretrievably broken. The petition sets out what the person wants from the court. The other spouse must file an answer within 20 days of being served, addressing the matters in the initial petition and, if he or she wishes, including a counter-petition for dissolution of marriage raising any additional issues the answering party requests the court to address.
Court rules governing divorces require that each party provide certain financial documents and a completed financial affidavit to the other party within 45 days of the service of the petition or several days before any temporary hearing. Failure to provide this information can result in the court dismissing the case or not considering that party’s requests. The parties or the court can modify these requirements except for the filing of a financial affidavit, which is mandatory in all cases in which financial relief is sought. A child support guidelines worksheet must also be filed with the court at or before any hearing on child support. This requirement may not be waived by the parties or the court.
Some couples agree on property, parental responsibility, and other post-divorce arrangements before or soon after the original petition is filed. They then enter into a written agreement signed by both parties that is presented to the court. Other couples may disagree on some issues, but eventually work out their differences, and also appear for a final hearing with a suggested settlement they ask the court to accept and incorporate into a final judgment. In such uncontested cases, a divorce can become final in a matter of a few weeks.
Mediation is a procedure to assist you and your spouse in working out an arrangement for reaching agreement without a protracted process or a trial. Its purpose is not to save a marriage, but to help divorcing couples reach a solution and arrive at agreeable terms for handling the break-up of the marriage. Many counties have public or court-connected mediation services available. Some counties require couples to attempt mediation before a trial can be set.
Finally, some couples cannot agree on much of anything and a trial with each side presenting its case is required. The judge makes the final decision on contested issues.
Coming to an agreement rather than leaving decisions up to a judge empowers parties to create terms with which they are more likely to comply.