Steps in the Legal Process

Step One: Filing a Complaint or Summons

The spouse that files the Complaint or Summons is referred to as the Plaintiff or in some states the Petitioner. The purpose of the complaint is to inform the court of the request for divorce, and to make the Plaintiff's spouse aware of the action through legal documentation. Like any other complaint, it is the job of the sheriff's office to deliver the papers. After receiving the complaint, the Defendant, or in some states the Respondent, will file an answer of agreement or disagreement. At this time separation starts and the Plaintiff will file Pretrial Orders or formal motions concerning living arrangements, finances, temporary custody and visitation.

Basic information required for Complaint or Summons:

  • date and location in which marriage took place
  • the residence of both spouses
  • the names and birthdates of each child
  • reason for declaring a divorce, (must be grounds permitted in your state)
  • a list of claims


Step Two: Pretrial Orders

Hopefully you and your spouse will be able to come to agreement on temporary arrangements. This will speed up the process, allowing you and your attorney to focus on information pertinent to the postdivorce arrangements. Either way, proper support for each claim must be provided in the orders. This part of the process will allow the judge to approve or disapprove the arrangements filed, which will make the future clearer for both of you. The temporary arrangements are not set in stone and do not directly influence the decisions made once the divorce is settled.

This is also the time an ex parte order may be decided. This is only temporary but is viewed as essential for protection of one spouse until a permanent decision can be made.

Step Three: Discovery Procedures

This is the process in which the attorney seeks necessary information that you have not been able to previously provide. There are many legal tools an attorney can use to receive vital information. The most common is a deposition.

A deposition is a statement that is recorded for later use. It allows each side to gain information from each other and expert witnesses. A court reporter is always present, so the questions and answers stated can be verified at a later date. It is valuable because the testimony of a witness can be delivered at the deposition if he or she is not available on the court date.

Step Four: Negotiations

Once all the information desired by each side is acquired, the strengths and weaknesses should be evident. It is at this point both sides bargain for specific claims requested. A large number of divorces will be settled out of court through negotiation, but if not the next step in the procedure is the pretrial hearing.

Step Five: Pretrial Hearing

Both sides are interviewed in front of a judge or panel of attorneys acting as a mediator. The pretrial hearing covers issues that will be addressed during the divorce. This allows the judge or panel to provide knowledge that will hopefully lead to an out-of-court settlement.

There may be more than one pretrial hearing as further negotiations take place. Remember you are responsible for accepting a settlement. A lawyer can provide advice as to whether or not the settlement is fair, but it is ultimately your decision.

Step Six: The Trial
The following procedures take place during the trial:

  • Opening Statements:  a summarization delivered to the judge by each attorney stating what they intend to prove. When the separation issues are minimal this procedure is often omitted
  • The Plaintiff's (Petitioner's) Case: the side that originally filed for divorce delivers the evidence that supports the claims declared
  • The Defendant's (Respondent's) Case:  the delivery of evidence that denies or contradicts the claims made during the Plaintiff's case
  • Rebuttal by Plaintiff  (Petitioner)
  • Rebuttal by Defendant  (Respondent)
  • Closing Arguments by each side
  • The Final Decision or Judgment