There are all different types of families and all different types of people, and therefore there are all different types of divorces. But at its most basic, a divorce is a transaction. As family law attorneys, we help our clients get from Point A to Point B.
Point A is the point in which our client knows that the marriage has come to an end. Point B is when a judgment of divorce has been issued by the Massachusetts Probate and Family Court and all issues relating to a divorce – including support, asset division, custody and parenting time (if there are children), and many other issues – are all resolved. As family law attorneys, it’s our absolute primary goal to get you from Point A to Point B as cost-efficiently and as painlessly as possible, with as best an outcome we possibly obtain for you.
When a client is at Point A, they have tons of questions – and rightly so. This is an important process. Here are the major questions we get from clients when they’re at Point A:
HOW DO WE START THIS PROCESS?
This process starts with your decision or your spouse’s decision that the marriage has come to an end. We, as divorce attorneys, advise you of the legal landscape so you can make an informed decision in that regard. Then, the legal process begins with one party filing a contested complaint for divorce, or if both parties have reached a full settlement, a joint petition for divorce. The complaint or the petition are filed with the Massachusetts Probate and Family Court and that’s when the legal process begins.
HOW LONG DOES THIS PROCESS TAKE?
Unfortunately the answer is “It depends.” What does it depend on? It depends on a number of different factors including the complexity of your case and the issues that need to be resolved. It can depend on the other party and whether they are willing to work collaboratively.
Above all, how long this process takes depends on whether your case is contested or uncontested. An uncontested divorce case is one in which the parties have reached a comprehensive settlement on all issues. A contested divorce case is one in which the parties cannot or have not reached a settlement and the court needs to make the decision, most likely after a trial.
The vast majority of divorce cases in Massachusetts, and cases that we handle at Hastings, Jamieson and Lipschutz, are resolved without a trial. That being said, sometimes cases need to go trial. This can be due to a major contested issue that cannot be resolved, or perhaps a difference in values relating to finances. As family law attorneys, we make those decisions on a case by case basis and always keeping your interests as our primary guidance.
WHAT KINDS OF ISSUES NEED TO BE RESOLVED IN A DIVORCE?
So what kinds of issues do the parties in a divorce action, or the court, have to resolve in order to get divorced? Simply put, all kinds. Here’s a simple overview of the types of issues typically settled in a divorce action:
- Legal custody of children
- Parenting time
- Child support
- Reimbursement of extracurricular activities
- Asset division
- Asset valuation
- Real estate
- Brokerage accounts
- Investment accounts
- Retirement accounts
- Pre-college education expenses
- College education expenses
- Health insurance coverage
- Dental insurance coverage
- Vision insurance coverage
- Reimbursement of uninsured medical expenses
- Liabilities (e.g. paying off credit cards
- Tax benefits (e.g. dependency exemptions, Head of Household status)
- Life insurance
We know, it looks like a lot. And it is a lot. But here’s the thing: whether we’re resolving a divorce case via an agreement or through a trial, we at Hastings, Jamieson and Lipschutz have literally done this thousands of times and with great outcomes to our clients.
Not every issue above will be present in every case, and settling an issue does not mean that there will be an obligation on that issue. For example, settling the issue of alimony doesn’t always mean there’s an alimony order – just that the issue is addressed. If you don’t at least address the issue, then you might waive a claim on that issue, or worse, you might have to start another legal process after this divorce case is finished. As I say all the time: Do it right. Do it once.
CAN MY SPOUSE AND I SETTLE OUR DIVORCE BY AN AGREEMENT?
Absolutely. As family law attorneys, we know the cost of divorce litigation – both in terms of money and the stress and emotional upheaval that divorce litigation can create. We want to minimize the cost involved in a divorce as much as possible, but again, keeping your rights and interests as our primary guidance.
However, there’s one thing we can’t change: in order to get fully and finally divorced, all divorce litigants need to appear in front of a judge of the Massachusetts Probate and Family Court at least once.
Many divorce cases in Massachusetts start and conclude as uncontested cases (called “1A’s”). This is where the parties draft a comprehensive separation agreement and resolve all the issues their case without contested litigation. If they accomplish this and fill out all the necessary paperwork, it’s possible that the parties can show up at the appropriate courthouse, appear before a judge, and get their separation agreement approved.
Many divorces start as a contested case (called “1B’s”). A contested case means litigation, and with that can come discovery (the exchange of information and evidence), motion hearings (where one party seeks orders from the court), and potentially a trial. But at any point, a contested case can turn into an uncontested case if the parties can reach a full agreement.
WHAT ARE THE STEPS IN THIS PROCESS?
There are many ways that the divorce process can unfold – too many for one article. But because we’re simplifying, let’s talk about the divorce process in two large categories: uncontested divorce actions and contested divorce actions.
Uncontested Divorces – in broad strokes
- The parties communicate on the issues, maybe with attorneys present, maybe with a mediator, maybe by themselves.
- The parties exchange financial information so that they are aware of all the financial circumstances of the other party.
- The parties complete the court-ordered financial statements.
- When the parties reach a full agreement on the applicable issues, they reduce that agreement in writing to a comprehensive separation agreement and they complete the necessary court documentation.
- The parties pick a day that they can appear in court and that the court is able to hear uncontested matters. They show up at court, file the necessary documents and filing fee.
- If all goes as planned, the parties appear before a judge who asks a series of questions. If that goes well the judge will issue a judgment of divorce approximately 30 days later, and that judgment will become final 90 days after that.
Contested Divorces – in broad strokes
- One party (the plaintiff) files a complaint for divorce and serves it on the other party (the defendant).
- The defendant files an answer to the complaint for divorce.
- The parties then engage in mandatory discovery (called Rule 410 discovery) where the parties exchange tax returns, bank statements, pay stubs, and other mandatory information.
- The parties might file and appear before the court on motions, such as a motion for support, or a motion for temporary custody.
- The parties then engage in additional discovery such as requests for documents, interrogatories (written questions), or depositions.
- The parties then appear before the court at a hearing called the Pre-Trial Conference. This is a very important hearing where the court typically will give feedback on the issues the parties have been unable to resolve. A Pre-Trial usually happens at least 6 months after the complaint for divorce is filed.
- If the parties cannot resolve the case after the Pre-Trial Conference, the court then may schedule the matter for a trial. A trial usually doesn’t occur until 9 months to a year after the complaint for divorce is filed.
- After the trial, the court will usually take the case “under advisement” and then issue a judgment with findings and a rationale. This usually takes a few months after the trial is concluded.
- Remember, if the parties reach an agreement at any time during this process, they can bring the case to a settlement.
Again, these are the “broad strokes” of a divorce process. A couple of major differences between an uncontested divorce and a contested divorce:
- Contested divorces usually take longer and are more expensive.
- There’s no mechanism for discovery in uncontested divorces.
- In uncontested divorces, the parties usually only have one hearing in front of a judge but there may be multiple hearings in a contested divorce.
DO I NEED AN ATTORNEY?
Short answer here is that you are not required to hire an attorney when you go through a divorce. Lots of people represent themselves in their divorce case. But it isn’t a good idea.
When a pipe breaks in your house, you call a plumber. When a light switch stops working, you hire an electrician. And when you go through a legal action, you hire an attorney.
It goes without saying but we at Hastings, Jamieson, Lipschutz Family Law Group are family law attorneys. That’s all we do. We know this process from front to back, and we know all the individuals involved from the court officers to the clerks to the judges. No matter what you do with our advice, it’s always a good idea to at least speak with a family law attorney on your case.
HOW MUCH WILL THIS COST?
Again, unfortunately, that depends. The cost of a case depends on a lot of factors, including the complexity of the issues, the amount of discovery to be done, the amount of time spent in court, and the length of the case.
There is no doubt that every case is different. But every HJL client gets the same promise: We work efficiently, we work hard, and we work to achieve your goals.