THE DIVORCE PROCESS IN MISSOURI
The divorce process in Missouri is complicated. It’s hard enough to figure out how you are going to pay your bills, break the bad news to your parents, and stay in the same room as your spouse. Below is a breakdown of the divorce process. Understanding what to expect and how long it can take will help you take back control of the situation.
THE BEGINNING OF THE DIVORCE
To start the divorce process either you or spouse must file a Petition for Dissolution of Marriage. I provide my clients with forms to complete that I use to draft the necessary court documents. Once I have received your completed forms, I draft a Petition for Dissolution of Marriage or an Answer to the Petition you have been served with a Petition. I submit the drafts to you for approval and signature before filing. After the Petition is filed, you or your spouse needs to waive service or be served with the Petition by Sheriff. After service, the law provides 30 days for the person served to file an Answer.
How are you going to feed your kids, pay your bills, and share time with your kids while your divorce is pending? Many people need immediate help from the Court to determine these issues immediately. This help may be in the form of restraining orders, temporary support orders, control of assets, custody and visitation orders, the right to exclusive possession of a home, and/or attorney’s fees. In such cases, I can file a temporary motion for relief and set the motion for a hearing. You cannot obtain a temporary order without a hearing. You cannot request a hearing until the Respondent has been served and provided with 7 days’ notice. The orders, sometimes called “pendente lite,” Latin for “during litigation,” are temporary. They only remain in effect until modified by agreement, or hearing, or until the case is finalized. The need for support is one of the most common reasons for a temporary hearing. At the temporary support hearing, one spouse presents evidence of his or her needs, obligations, and expenses. The spouse from whom support is sought will in like manner present evidence of his or her expenses and income. It important for me to prove facts about your income at this early stage. You will need to show paycheck stubs, tax returns, and bank statements to provide a complete financial picture for the court. Sometimes we must have the court decide who will remain in the family residence during the pendency of the divorce, who will have control of certain assets (like a car), who will be responsible for certain debts. It usually takes anywhere from 2 weeks to 2 months to get temporary orders in place. If need temporary help, talk to your attorney immediately.
FINANCIAL DISCLOSURES, PARENTING PLANS, & DISCOVERY
The next stage of the case is the financial disclosure and/or “discovery” period. The Court requires you to complete forms and sign them under oath disclosing your assets, debts, income, and expenses. You must file these documents with the Court within 15-30 days after your Petitioner or Answer is filed. If you have children, you must also disclose your proposed parenting plan, which details what you are specifically requesting from the court as it relates to custody, visitation, and support. You also have 30 days to attend a parenting education program, called Focus on Kids. During this stage, both sides try to collect all the information necessary for settlement discussions and/or trial. Discovery isn’t always necessary in cases where both parties have kept organized records and are forthcoming in their disclosures. Discovery refers to the ability of both parties to formally request information, primarily financial, from the other side. Discovery includes such devices as interrogatories, depositions, and requests for documents. Usually interrogatories are first and then a deposition may occur if additional information is necessary. This proceeding involves the taking of sworn testimony from you, your spouse, and/or third parties at one of the attorneys’ offices. Usually both clients, both attorneys, and a court reporter are present. Although both parties should have their required disclosures filed with the Court within the first month of the divorce, often times it takes much longer. If one party needs more time to file their statements, the Court liberally allows it. Ideally, this process would not take longer than 1-2 months. But, it is not uncommon for this process to take over a year.
The best approach to family law litigation is to not make a bad situation worse. No one understands your life like you and your spouse. You know if it would work best to sell your house immediately, or to allow your spouse time to pay off your marital interest in monthly payments. Only you will know that your kids need a phone call with dad every night before being tucked in. A cookie-cutter order or parenting plan does not work best for most families. Many studies show that a negotiated agreement between the parties serves both parties best. An agreement allows the parties to “fine tune” matters between themselves in a way that courts are often unable to do. The court will never know a case as well as the parties and the attorneys do. Usually, there is less legal expense involved in negotiating a settlement than in trying the case in court. Therefore, it is best to work out a settlement if possible. However, there are times when the case does not settle despite everyone’ s best efforts. Settlement may be impossible for several reasons, including the unrealistic expectations of the parties, disputes as to the facts or the law, the existence of novel and undecided issues, or the desire on the part of a party to deny a divorce to the spouse. In those instances, a trial may be necessary. If you can reach a settlement, many times you and your spouse can sign the documents and waive the necessity of a court hearing. However, the court cannot sign off on any agreement until 30 days have passed since the case was filed. Negotiations should begin at the beginning of the case and continue throughout. Sometimes, this process takes one day. Other times, it take two years. It is hard to predict.
If it does not appear that your case will settle or if it seems settlement negotiations may proceed better against the backdrop of a trial date, a trial date is requested. Upon the completion of all discovery, the case is set for a hearing. Settlement sometimes occurs just before trial, “on the courthouse steps.” The agreement is recited on the record (before a judge and court reporter). Though both parties may desire a divorce, if there is no agreement on all issues, the matter is contested, and a trial is necessary. Preparing for trial is an intense, time consuming, and, therefore, expensive process. Testimony requires preparation. All documents are copied and cataloged. If there will be testimony, your attorney will meet with the experts to prepare for cross-examination of the other side. Research and briefs may be necessary. At the trial, witnesses and records substantiate positions of the parties as to support, custody, property, or other issues. Most cases that end up going to trial take a minimum of one year. Two years is not uncommon.
AFTER YOUR JUDGMENT
Often deeds and other documents must be signed and recorded to complete property transfers after the final order (by settlement or trial). A list is made of all transfers necessary to carry out the property divisions as agreed by the parties or ordered by the court. Your cooperation in providing such documents as deeds and car titles will aid in the final transfers.
If the trial court enters an order or decision that you believe is against the law or is not supported by the evidence, you have options, including an appeal from the court’s judgment. If you or your former spouse ends up appealing a judgment, you can expect to spend another 6 months to a year, if not more in litigation.