First: Make sure you need a divorce. Every marriage has its ups and downs. If you believe there is any realistic chance in saving your marriage (and you are safe, there is not adultery, criminal activity or any other reason that you need to immediately remove yourself from the marriage), take every step you can to make certain that you need a divorce. Discuss the matter with those who you trust, see a marriage counselor, do whatever you need to do arrive at a final decision to obtain a divorce. This will save you the money of hiring an attorney, the filing fees for the divorce and perhaps prevent you from taking a path that ultimately leads you away from the happy secure life that we each deserve.
Second: Get an experienced divorce attorney. Once you have made the choice to get a divorce, get expert advice. There are many misconceptions about divorce, property division, child custody and support. You will be receiving advice from just about everyone who has ever known someone who got a divorce. These people will be (usually) well intentioned. They may even be right on some things. They will almost certainly be wrong an many other things. The fact that you expect that you and your spouse can reach an agreement does not address what your rights are (or what your spouse’s rights are). It is one thing to intentionally walk away from an asset that would provide you security in retirement, it is wrong to do so unintentionally. An experienced attorney will generally be able to answer all of your questions at the first appointment regarding your rights to co-parent your children, what is marital and separate property and how they might be divided, whether the case is appropriate for spousal support (alimony), etc. Well meaning and intelligent people call my office everyday obviously seeking the cheapest attorney in town. These are the very people who would not purchase anything else solely on the basis of price.
Step Three: Follow the advice of your Attorney. After finding an experienced attorney based who you trust to assist you….listen to him/her! Follow their advice. If you don’t understand why something is being done or requested of you ask questions and make certain everything is fully explained. But the main thing you are paying for is expertise.
Step Four: The Actual Process! Okay, this is probably what you REALLY wanted to know when you came to my website. It will vary to some extent based on your specific situation, but here are the steps:
1. File a Complaint for Divorce: This just starts the process by telling your spouse that you are asking the Court to grant you a divorce. The Complaint does not have to have any specific allegations of bad conduct if you are seeking an agreed divorce. In Tennessee when parties mutually agree to divorce, the divorce is generally sought and granted based upon their “Irreconcilable Differences.” In fact, you can only obtain a divorce upon irreconcilable differences if you agree on the disposition of everything (assets, liabilities, child co-parenting and support, etc.). Yes, there is irony in the legal system. The Complaint for a Divorce does not try to address who is getting what, but there has to be enough specificity that your spouse knows what you are seeking. If you have children it is important to include a proposed Permanent Parenting Plan which addresses the specifics of how you will provide for your children.
2. Give your spouse legal notice of the filing: In order to make certain that your spouse has “official” notice that you have filed a Complaint for Divorce, the law requires that s/he either be served with a copy of the Complaint by the Sheriff or a private process server or the s/he waive the service by signing a form that acknowledges they have been given a copy of the Complaint for Divorce.
3. Both Parties Execute a Marital Dissolution Agreement, Permanent Parenting Plan (if there are children) and agree to a Final Decree of Divorce: The Marital Dissolution Agreement should detail what is going to happen with respect to every marital asset and liability (generally debts). It is the document that says which car or truck each person gets, which credit card each person pays for, etc. It also provides for the division of retirement accounts, healthcare needs, spousal support, etc. Your attorney will go through this with you and it is important that this portion of the divorce process be very thoroughly discussed with both your attorney and your spouse (again this is for an AGREED divorce). The Permanent Parenting Plan is a state mandated form which provides details of who is going to do what for and with your children. This is the area where many people find it extremely difficult to reach an agreement. It is understandable to want to have every moment with your children but the other parent is likely to feel the exact same way. An experienced attorney is going to help you make decisions that are very difficult. Also, an experienced attorney will see the areas that you and your spouse have not addressed. Often these are unintentionally left out either because neither party realizes that it is even an issue, or because out of an desire to “agree” neither party wants to raise an difficult topic. However difficult the issue may be now, it will be more difficult later.
4. Go to Co-Parenting Class (if you have children): If you have children, you are required to go to a class which will hopefully assist you in the co-parenting of your child or children after the divorce. I have preferred providers but encourage parents to go to the same provider so that they are hearing the same information presented in the same way. You and your spouse are generally not allowed to attend the same class, however.
5. Go to Court: If you have children, the quickest you can obtain a divorce in the State of Tennessee is Ninety (90) days. If you do not have children, the quickest you can obtain a divorce is Sixty (60) days. Uncontested Divorces (often called Ex Parte Divorces because only one party needs to appear) are often handled in the Judge or Chancellor’s office. Everyone will try to make the process as painless as possible. And, so long as the divorce is granted on irreconcilable differences, the questions will be designed only to make certain that this is a fair (equitable) divorce. That does not mean that it will not be difficult emotionally. The divorce is technically not “final” until Thirty (30) days after the Final Decree is signed, so it is likely you will be advised several times not to remarry until after this period.
6. Do what the Final Decree says (and take this opportunity to get your life in order): Get a copy of the signed Final Decree, the Marital Dissolution Agreement, and the Permanent Parenting Plan. READ IT! Follow it. If circumstances change so that the Order should be changed, get it changed. Do not simply agree to do something different. This is especially important for people who are raising children. But, Judges do not appreciate people ignoring their Orders. Also, this is a time to review your credit report and close old accounts with consideration to your credit score. Change beneficiaries on insurance policies. Do appropriate Estate Planning (such as a new Will). I’m sure you will think of other things that need to be done. Do them. This is a great opportunity to start the next phase of your life. I hope I have assisted you in understanding the process for process of obtaining an Agreed Divorce. I will be posting a separate comment regarding getting a Divorce when there is no agreement. Obviously this is not intended to substitute for specific advice regarding your situation….and I say again: Get an experienced attorney you trust and follow their advice!