How to File for a Divorce

A four-step plan to get the forms, file, and get on with your lives.

Thanks to the surfeit of complex negotiations surrounding a divorcejoint custody arrangements, alimony payments, and child support — it might come as a surprise that the act of filing for one is remarkably straightforward. “Usually, it involves filling out a few documents with the courts and you’re done,” says Mandy Walker, a Colorado-based divorce coach, mediator, and certified divorce financial advisor. However, “the act of filing is really just the beginning,” says Walker. Here’s how to get through the first few steps of divorce and what you need to know about the legal process involved in ending a marriage.

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1. Get the Divorce Papers for Your State

If you Google “family law” and the name of your state, you will find a link to a website for the judicial system in your area. Go there. Read everything they provide. Every state is slightly different, but most require minimal initial paperwork to set the wheels in motion, including a Family Law Petition (basically stating you want a divorce), Summons (acknowledging you understand the divorce process in your county), Property Declaration form, and documentation of any children under age 18. In some counties, you can print the legal docs right from the court’s website. In other places, you’ll have to go to the court and fill it out there. If you are the person filing, you’ll be known as the “petitioner.” Check that box on your paperwork. If you don’t want a drawn-out legal battle, and simply want to end an unhappy situation, you’ll want to list “irreconcilable differences” as the reason for your marriage’s end.

2. Compile Your Paperwork

Once you file, the court will serve papers to your spouse along with a time limit for the number of days you have to exchange financial information, known as a Declaration of Disclosure or Financial Disclosure form, with your soon-to-be-ex and her attorney. This can include all your investment information, as well as two or three years of tax documents. “The court establishes a date for the proceedings, by which point all information must be exchanged,” says Walker. “A lot of people don’t realize, when they go to file, how much paperwork comes after that.” Do your homework first, so that when you actually file, you already have the financial statements ready.

You also should take a glimpse into the future before putting pen to paper. Consider a one-time visit with an attorney so you are clear on your options for things like child support, child custody, and who is likely to get the house. You might also want to meet with a financial advisor. “Get an idea of how divorce may affect your lifestyle,” says Walker. “It’s good to be able to estimate your post-divorce income before you split.”

3. Decide to File Individually or Jointly

Just because your marriage is over doesn’t mean you and your spouse can’t come together for the greater good of the kids. Namely, filing for divorce together to avoid many of the legal nasties that occur when one party is served divorce papers by the other. “Filing jointly sets the tone for the whole legal process,” says Walker. “If you file alone, it’s a slap in the face to the other person—a trigger that will make them angry and defensive for the rest of the process.”

There’s nothing easy about the conversation, but if you’re willing, it should go something like this: “I want to move ahead with the legal process. I’ve done some research, and we can do this together.” All states in the U.S. are no-fault states, says Walker, meaning if either person wants a marriage to end, it will end, regardless. Ending it together just makes it faster, smoother, and cheaper.

4. Consider Mediation to Keep the Costs Down

“In the divorce process, there are a lot of forks in the road,” says Walker. “Before you file, ask yourself: How do I want this divorce to proceed?” Ninety-nine percent of the time, there is anger involved when a marriage ends. But allowing that hostility to dictate your approach to divorce makes parenting extremely difficult, and can make your kids’ lives miserable, too. Plus, “a hostile divorce is inevitably an expensive divorce,” says Walker. Consider: The average cost of the most basic, uncomplicated separation in Walker’s home state of Colorado is $12,500, the bulk of which go into lawyers’ pockets. More anger, more complications, more money.

For this reason, an increasing number of couples are trying mediation as a way of ending their marriage. In this scenario, you can still work with an attorney or licensed mediator, but the goal is to find an expedient, relatively amicable solution to the situation. It’s best to broach this topic before you file, as it makes your spouse feel like she has some control over the process as well.