Whether you saw it coming or felt blindsided, being served with divorce paperwork can be the start of a difficult road. The divorce process can be complex and may seem overwhelming. If you’re not sure what to do next, the below list may provide some helpful guidance.
Consult with a Family Law Attorney
One of the first things you should do after being served divorce papers is consult with and hire an experienced family law attorney. A family law attorney can help you understand what to expect from the process and take some of the burden off of you, since you’ll likely have other things to deal with. An experienced attorney knows what to expect and what needs to happen and can share that information with you so you don’t miss any important steps and you can spend your time on the proper priorities.
Particularly if children are involved, there are a lot of important decisions that need to be made during the divorce process, such as who remains in the marital home and who will have temporary custody of any children until a permanent determination is made. An attorney can put things in motion, make sure you don’t miss deadlines, and advocate for your rights. Additionally, your attorney can advise you on issues that may impact divorce matters, such as spending marital assets and how to communicate with your spouse.
File an Answer
In Virginia, a spouse has 21 days from the date he or she was served with the divorce paperwork to respond. The initial document filed to start the process is a Complaint and a spouse will respond by filing an Answer. The Complaint will set out the facts of the case and any grounds for divorce the spouse is alleging. In the Answer, the individual must respond to all allegations made in the Complaint. If you’ve hired an attorney to assist with your divorce, your attorney will do most of the leg work on this step. However, it’s crucial to file the Answer within the 21-day deadline, or a default judgement of divorce can be entered against the late spouse. This highlights the importance of consulting with an attorney sooner rather than later, so the attorney has time to review the Complaint, get relevant information, and respond before the deadline.
Manage Your Finances
In the event of a divorce, Virginia courts follow the equitable distribution method of dividing property. Under equitable distribution, courts will divide property “equitably,” or fairly, between spouses, but not necessarily evenly. The property division process can be complex and have significant financial consequences.
In Virginia, a couple’s property upon divorce is classified as marital, separate, or part marital and part separate. Marital property is jointly-owned property and other property (other than separate property) obtained from the date of marriage through separation. Marital property is subject to equitable distribution during a divorce proceeding. Separate property is all property acquired by one spouse prior to marriage and property obtained during marriage by inheritance or gift (other than a gift by a spouse). Courts will also classify and divide any marital debt the same way as marital property.
To prepare for the equitable distribution process it’s important to create a financial inventory and collect documentation regarding ownership of assets. For example, documentation showing property was purchased by one spouse prior to marriage is important to establish that asset is separate property. Additionally, financial information establishing the value of assets and debts is important to allow the court to make an equitable distribution. It’s important for individuals to have an accurate picture of their financial health, including assets and debts. This step is particularly important if your spouse handled the marriage’s finances and you are unsure of where you may stand financially following divorce. Being informed is key and can allow you time to learn more or save up, if necessary. Important documents to gather include tax returns, bank account statements, investment and retirement account statements, credit card statements, and mortgage documents.
Mediation is a process involving spouses attempting to resolve their dispute with the help of a third party, known as a mediator. Some courts may require mediation before proceeding directly with litigation. Even if not required by the court, mediation can be very helpful for couples that are able to come to agreement on issues. During mediation, a couple can discuss all the topics related to divorce proceedings, including child custody and visitation, child and spousal support, and property division. If the parties are able to agree on these issues, with the help of their attorneys, they can reach a Separation Agreement.
A separation agreement is a type of postnuptial agreement that will establish the parties’ rights and obligations regarding marital debts and assets after a divorce. If the couple has children, the separation agreement can also address child support and child custody and visitation issues. If a couple is able to reach a Separation Agreement, it likely will make the resulting divorce cheaper and result in a faster resolution. The more a couple disagrees on issues, the longer the process typically takes, which also results in higher costs.
Consider Any Children
Even if you saw the divorce coming, chances are your children did not. If a couple with children decides to divorce, the children will face many changes and it’s important you keep their point of view in mind during the divorce process. Avoid involving your children in any potential discord, especially if the divorce is contentious.
Creating a parenting plan can help make the process go more smoothly for any children involved. Ideally, a parenting plan will allow both parents to spend time with the children while the divorce is pending and before the court makes a permanent decision regarding child custody and visitation. If spouses aren’t able to agree, they may wish to utilize a mediator, or unbiased third party who assists the couple in coming to an agreement. Alternatively, the court may appoint a guardian ad litem, which is an attorney tasked with representing solely the best interests of the child. A court may also determine a temporary custody order pending the final hearing.
Decide What Type of Divorce You Want
Not all divorces need to be contested and decided by a judge in a courtroom. Spouses that are more amicable may be able to come to an agreement about their respective rights and obligations after the divorce and enter into a separation agreement rather than having a judge decide these issues. Even if the spouses aren’t able to completely agree on their own, they can seek alternative dispute resolution rather than a court hearing. Instead of a court hearing in front of a judge, spouses can proceed with a mediated divorce, as discussed above.
While mediation is the most common form of alternative dispute resolution in divorce matters, divorce arbitration is also available. Arbitration also involves a neutral third party outside of a courtroom, but is more similar to the traditional adversarial nature present in a courtroom. Another method of divorce alternative dispute resolution is collaborative divorce. Collaborative divorce involves out of court sessions where spouses receive legal advice from attorneys trained in the collaborative process with the goal of an amicable and fair resolution for both parties. While it shares similarities with mediation in that it is often cheaper and faster than litigated divorce, collaborative divorce includes guidance from trained divorce lawyers. Collaborative divorce often includes a team of professionals, in addition to divorce attorneys, such as a mental health professional to assist with communication and child-related issues, and a financial professional to assist with collecting necessary financial information regarding assets and debts of the parties. This collaborative team works together with the spouses to work through emotional, financial, and legal issues to come to a mutual agreement of the parties’ rights and obligations after divorce.
Divorce may seem overwhelming, but it doesn’t have to be. An experienced family law attorney can help you prepare and guide you through the process. Family law attorneys at General Counsel, P.C. are experienced in all aspects of divorce and can help you navigate the process. Call us today at 703-991-7973 and see how we can help you.