Family Law: Procedure in Divorce

The following is a description of the possible procedure involved in a divorce in Washington state.

Procedure

Commencement: A dissolution of marriage is a difficult process which you must go through in order to end your marriage. It is commenced by one party (petitioner) filing a Petition for Dissolution of Marriage. This is then served on the other party (respondent). The respondent then has 20 days to respond or an Order of Default can be entered against them.

Waiting Period: In Washington, a dissolution of marriage cannot be finalized until 90 days has expired. This does not mean that you are automatically divorced in 90 days. If both parties are in agreement of all of the terms, the final papers can be presented to the court and the divorce finalized on the 91st day. If the parties are not in agreement, the Decree cannot be entered until they reach agreement, or the court enters the decree after a trial.

Trial Date: If the parties are not in agreement with all of the terms, the case will proceed on until they reach an agreement or have a trial. At trial, both parties present their evidence on whatever issues are in dispute, and the judge will decide them for the parties. In King County, the day you file your action, you are given your trial date. That date is about 11 months after filing. This does not mean you have to go to trial, but it gives you an end point, that if you cannot reach an agreement before this date, the court will decide the issues after a trial.

Temporary Relief: Typically, the parties cannot wait 90 days, let alone 11 months to get things resolved; they need some ground rules on how to conduct themselves pending trial. It is not unusual for one party or the other to file a motion to get temporary orders entered pending trial. This could include temporary restraining orders (prohibiting the parties from disturbing the peace of the other, dissipating community assets, canceling insurance benefits, etc.), temporary parenting plan (defining both parties rights and responsibilities regarding the children), temporary child support, temporary spousal maintenance, temporary occupancy of the family home, temporary use of automobiles and other assets, temporary payment of community debts, and temporary payment of attorney fees. The parties can get into court for temporary relief with only 2 weeks notice to the other side.

Discovery: After the parties get accustomed to functioning under their separation and the terms of the temporary orders, it is common to start the discovery process, to collect information necessary to settle the case and/or prepare for trial. The least expensive manner is for the client to collect the information and bring it in to the attorney. If this is not possible, we can send out Interrogatories (written questions for the other side to answer under oath), Request for Production of Documents, take a deposition (oral questions to the other side to answer orally under oath), subpoena documents from third parties (banks, employers, stock brokers, retirement companies, etc.), or hire our own experts (parenting evaluators, real estate appraisers, actuaries to value pensions, personal property appraisers, etc.).

Settlement: Once we have acquired all of the information we need, we typically sit down and pencil out what we believe a fair settlement would be on all of the issues, with the supporting documentation. We can then send out a settlement letter to the other side, explaining our position with the backup documentation. They can then either accept it, reject it, or give us a counter offer. If we are close, we can negotiate a settlement, and then draft the final papers for signature and entry with the court.

If we cannot reach a settlement directly, we frequently schedule a settlement conference with an active or retired judge or experience family law attorney, who can review the settlement positions of both sides, and then give us his/her unbiased opinion of what they perceive the outcome of the case, should it go to trial. This is not binding on the parties, but can be used as a springboard for formulating a settlement that is acceptable to both sides.

Trial: Ultimately, if settlement cannot be reached, we prepare for trial, present the evidence, and let the judge tell us the outcome. At trial both parties are given the opportunity to testify and produce any relevant documentation and other witnesses. When the final decision has been made, the final papers are then prepared, often including a Decree of Dissolution, Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law, Parenting Plan and Order of Child Support. Once these papers have been signed by the judge, the parties are divorced.