By Christine G. DeBernardis, Esq
A breakdown of a marriage or a separation of a family is often a devastating experience. Having knowledge of the process and knowing what to expect can make an already difficult situation easier.
In Massachusetts, there are two ways by which a party can file for a divorce. The first is commonly known as a “joint petition.” The second is commonly referred to as a “complaint for divorce.”
A “joint petition” is filed when the parties agree on how to resolve all of the issues surrounding their separation. This includes grounds for divorce, division of assets, custody & visitation, health insurance, retirement plans, alimony, child support, etc. The parties will be required to file a petition for divorce, several procedural documents and a settlement agreement that documents how they will resolve each and every issue. After all documents are drafted, negotiated and signed, the parties file the petition with the Court, along with all the corresponding documents, and request that a date be assigned for an uncontested hearing. At that hearing, the parties appear for testimony and review of the agreement by the Judge.
If there is any conflict between the parties related to the divorce action (i.e. they cannot agree on division of assets, one party does not want to divorce, etc.), one party can initiate a case by filing a “complaint for divorce.”
If there are immediate issues, such as support or custody and visitation, the plaintiff may also choose to file motions at this time. The Court will then issue a summons that the plaintiff must serve to the defendant, along with a copy of the complaint. The defendant then has a certain time period in which s/he must file an answer. From there, the case proceeds to discovery, which is a process by which the parties share information. The parties then have a four way hearing to discuss the issues in the case and explore settlement. If the matter cannot be settled, the parties next attend a pre-trial conference at the Court to prepare for trial. Many times, cases are resolved with the Court’s assistance at these hearings.
While this is a very simplified version of the process, it gives you a general idea of how a case proceeds in both situations. There are many issues that may arise along the way that may require negotiation, settlement or decision by the Court. There are many things to consider and difficult decisions to be made. Every case is individual and presents its own difficulties.
Frequently, a party to a divorce action, or a potential divorce action, has questions about the applicable law, the process, the decisions, the cost, support, custody, visitation, Court appearances and the future. You do not have to hire an attorney for your case. If you do not hire an attorney, you are expected to know the procedure and law in the Court and are held to the decisions that you make in settlement. You should consider hiring an attorney, especially if one or more of the following apply to your case:
- You have minor children;
- You have been married 10 years or more;
- There is domestic abuse in the home;
- You have significant assets;
- Your home is in jeopardy of foreclosure or short sale;
- You have multiple real estate properties;
- You or your spouse are self-employed;
- You have significant debt;
- You (or your spouse) wish to move out of state with the minor children; or
- You (or your spouse) are facing bankruptcy.
If you are unsure of whether you want to hire an attorney, make an appointment to discuss your case. An experienced, qualified attorney will take you through the process step by step and give you guidance to make informed decisions about your future, making the process less stressful and more manageable.
Christine G. DeBernardis, Esq. is a family lawyer with DeBernardis & Associates, P.C. which services Massachusetts and New Hampshire.
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