Steps in the Court Process of Divorce
The divorce process can be complex and overwhelming. We hope this explanation of the steps in the process of a dissolution of marriage (divorce) or legal separation in Thurston County, Washington will help to clarify the process for you. There is almost no difference in the process of divorce or legal separation. Where there is, we will highlight it.
Summons and Petition
Initially, a summons and petition must be filed with the court. A filing fee of $290 (as of March 1, 2014) must be paid to the court clerk. The petition is the petitioner's proposal about how the divorce should be resolved. It describes a proposed division of property and debts and, if there are children, it describes a proposed parenting plan for the children. These documents must be served on the respondent, unless the respondent will sign an acceptance of service form.
After the Summons and petition have been served, the law provides that a response must be filed and served on the petitioner within 20 days. The response states the respondent's agreement or disagreement with the proposals in the petition and may contain a counterproposal about how the divorce should be resolved.
90 Day Waiting Period for Divorce
After the documents have been served, a minimum of 90 days must pass before a divorce can be finalized. This is the soonest one can be divorced in Washington, but the process may take much longer depending on the agreements, or disagreements, on the many issues that must be resolved before settlement of the divorce. There is no waiting period to finalize a legal separation.
It is sometimes necessary to obtain immediate orders when the divorce is filed. This may include a restraining order, temporary child or spousal support, control of assets, a parenting plan, or a right to remain in the home. In this case, a motion for temporary orders is filed and a hearing is set. This hearing generally occurs about 10 days after the motion is filed and served on the other party.
During the course of the dissolution process, a party may ask the court to resolve disagreements in this way several times. Hopefully this will not be necessary and the parties will work together to resolve any issues that arise informally, that is, out of court, rather than formally through court activity.
Negotiating effectively increases the chances of the parties to arrive at a fair settlement. An agreement negotiated between the parties is the best possible outcome. It is important to realize that a court will never know the facts as well as the parties and their attorneys, a resolution almost always costs less than a litigated one, and it occurs more quickly.
Negotiations can take place in many ways. The parties can negotiate directly with each other. If the parties' direct attempts are not productive, this can be done by the parties in mediation, by the parties' attorneys for them through telephone calls, correspondence, and meetings with or without their clients. What is most important is that communication remains open, and that offers and counter offers are exchanged and responded to.
Discovery - Collecting Information
While negotiating, both sides will need to collect the information necessary for informed settlement discussions and/or trial. In most cases parties and attorneys share information they have obtained informally -- that is simply because requests are made by one party or attorney of the other. More formal ways of obtaining information is called "discovery." This is done by means of interrogatories, which is a set of written questions that are answered under oath within an allotted time; depositions, which is the oral testimony of a witness taken under oath before trial; or a request for production of documents, which is a written request to the other party for documents to be produced within an allotted time.
Guardian ad Litem
If the parties are unable to reach an agreement regarding the residential schedule of their children, a guardian ad litem may be appointed to represent the interests of the children. The guardian ad litem is appointed by the court to investigate and report back to the court regarding the disputed issues. The guardian ad litem represents what is in the "best interest" of the children. After the investigation, the guardian ad litem reports to the court in writing and makes recommendations. These recommendations may or may not be agreed upon by the parties, but they are generally given considerable weight by a judge.
The parties can attempt to address disagreements through the process of mediation. Mediation is a process in which the parties negotiate with the assistance of a neutral professional. The mediator assists the parties in defining the issues of concern, gathering information necessary to make decisions, developing and examining options, and working toward reaching an agreement. If an agreement is reached, the mediator puts the agreement in writing. If mediation does not result in a settlement, the parties return to the court process.
A settlement conference may then be scheduled. This process is mandatory in Thurston County before a case can be scheduled for trial. This is an effort to bring the attorneys and clients together with a judge for the purpose of discussing settlement. The settlement conference is not a trial. The judge makes recommendations and suggestions to the parties in an informal setting in an attempt to settle the case. If the parties can settle all the matters in dispute, the resolution is recited in court on the record. If settlement is not reached, a trial is generally scheduled.
Preparing for trial and trying a case is intense, time-consuming, and expensive. At trial, each party will testify and present any witnesses he or she believes is helpful in proving that his or her proposals are best. After hearing from all of the witnesses, and examining the documents offered as evidence, the judge will decide what should be done for every matter that is at issue.
Finalizing the Divorce
Upon reaching a settlement or after the judge has made his or her decision after trial, findings of fact, conclusions of law, and decree of dissolution of marriage will be entered, along with a parenting plan and order of child support, if there are children. These documents conclude the divorce process.
Converting a Legal Separation to a Divorce
Six months after a decree of legal separation is entered, either party may ask the court to convert it to a decree of dissolution of marriage. This does not require an agreement, and cannot be prevented if one party wants it. This is done by means of a simple motion and a simple order is entered.