In most jurisdictions, when a married couple decides that the marriage is not working, they have the option to file for divorce, often referred to as dissolution. While the laws and procedures may vary from one jurisdiction to another, the basic process is generally similar. Within the United States, each state determines the allowable grounds upon which a divorce may be filed, as well as the procedures that must be followed. There are a number of common steps among the states, including an initial divorce hearing and a final divorce hearing if the parties are unable to reach an agreement regarding the issues. Initial, or pre-trail, divorce hearings are intended to let the court know where the parties stand and to resolve any procedural or pre-trial issues, such as discovery requests or to request temporary orders. A final hearing is essentially a trial where the judge or jury will decide any contested issues between the parties.
To start divorce proceedings, one spouse must file a petition or complaint for divorce in the appropriate county court. In most states, the petition must be filed within the county where one of the parties is considered a resident. The other party must then be legally served with a copy of the petition. Often, the court will also order that both parties appear for an initial divorce hearing at that point in order to determine if each party has retained legal counsel and to get an idea of what issues are involved in the divorce.
The court may order, or a party may request, an additional divorce hearing at some point during the process, but before the trial, in order to address issues such as discovery or to ask the judge to make temporary rulings on issues such as child support or possession of the marital residence. When minor children are involved, it is common to have a preliminary divorce hearing to determine who will have temporary custody of the children while the case is pending. Discovery issues such as sharing financial records between the parties may also call for the judge to make a ruling at a hearing.
If the parties are able to reach a mutually agreeable settlement arrangement that addresses all the issues in the divorce, some states will allow the parties to waive a final divorce hearing. In that case, the parties will simply submit the agreement in writing to the court and the judge will sign off, making the divorce final. In other cases, a final, uncontested divorce hearing is required, where the judge will go over the terms of the agreement in court. If, however, the couple in unable to reach an agreement, then a final contested divorce hearing will be scheduled. This is essentially a trial where the judge, or jury, if requested, will rule on all contested issues in the case, after which the decisions will becomes orders of the court as part of the divorce decree and the parties will be divorced.