Uncontested divorce: What it is and how to get one

LegalZoom explains how an uncontested divorce typically works, its benefits and drawbacks, and the steps to take if it's the right option.

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Divorce doesn't always have to be a drawn-out and contentious process. Instead, spouses who agree on the terms of their separation, such as property division and child custody, can file for an uncontested divorce. This approach avoids lengthy court battles and saves money, though the requirements and procedures vary by state. To help you prepare, LegalZoom explains how an uncontested divorce typically works, its benefits and drawbacks, and the steps to take if you decide it's the right option.

What is an uncontested divorce?

An uncontested divorce is a type of divorce where both spouses have no disputes over their separation.

To qualify for an uncontested divorce, spouses must resolve all major issues on their own or through a mediator, such as: 

  • Child custody and visitation 
  • Child support 
  • Spousal support
  • Division of marital assets and debts

Each state has different filing requirements, but generally, spouses will document their resolutions in writing and submit them to the court. In addition, spouses must meet their state's (and sometimes county's) residency requirements to qualify for an uncontested divorce. It's important to review and understand your area's requirements, as they can vary anywhere from no waiting period to six months for new residents.

Moreover, an uncontested divorce can happen by default if a spouse doesn't respond to the divorce papers within a specified time frame or appear in court. When this happens, the court reviews the filing spouse's divorce terms and determines how to proceed per local laws. 

Contested vs. uncontested divorces

Contested and uncontested divorces each have their own set of processes, benefits, and drawbacks.

From a broad perspective, however, the main difference lies in whether the spouses or a judge decides the final terms of the divorce. 

Contested divorce

In a contested divorce, spouses disagree on key issues such as property division or child custody. It might be one thing or several, but no matter what, they can't reach a mutual resolution for a conflict related to their separation. Because the spouses can't agree, the divorce must be litigated in court, leaving the outcome in the hands of a judge. The typical process for a contested divorce includes: 

  • Filing a complaint, petition, and other documents, including net worth or financial statements, with the court
  • Answering the petition or the complaint if you are the party served
  • Serving and answering motions
  • Undergoing the process of discovery to get information from your spouse
  • Going to trial with witnesses 
  • Possibly dealing with an attorney for the children or a guardian ad litem who represents your children 

Depending on the nature of the disagreement(s), this process can take several weeks, if not months, and can incur significant legal expenses. As a result, spouses are encouraged to resolve as many conflicts as possible before heading to court. 

Pros:

  • The court's involvement ensures a legally binding resolution. 
  • Each spouse has the opportunity to present their side of the case. 
  • This approach may result in a fairer division of assets and responsibilities if both parties have strong disagreements. 

Cons:

  • Lengthy process, often taking months to resolve. 
  • Significantly higher legal costs due to attorney fees and court expenses (not to mention any missed time from work). 
  • Increased emotional stress for both parties and any involved children or family members. 
  • A judge decides the outcomes, which may not satisfy either party completely. 

As you can see, the contested divorce process can be lengthy, costly, and emotionally draining. While it's sometimes the only option for spouses who can't reason with each other, it's always best to avoid a contested divorce if at all possible. 

Uncontested divorce

On the other hand, an uncontested divorce has a streamlined process that avoids most of the lengthy court proceedings. Since spouses already agree to the terms of their separation, the court's primary role is to ensure they meet any state-specific requirements and work in the best interests of their children (if there are any). To begin, one spouse files a petition, the other party gets served, and together, they work to resolve any outstanding issues. From here, the process typically includes: 

  • Drafting and then filing a settlement agreement 
  • Court review 
  • Brief court hearing (if necessary) 
  • Final judgment 

Assuming the spouses submit a valid settlement agreement, comply with any residency requirements, and mutually agree to the terms of their divorce, the court will most likely approve the uncontested divorce. 

Pros:

  • Faster process, often completed within a few months. 
  • Lower legal costs since it involves fewer attorney hours and court fees. 
  • Amicable separation and less emotional strain.
  • Greater control over the outcome, as both parties agree on the terms. 

Cons:

  • Requires complete agreement on all terms, which may not be possible for all couples. 
  • May not be suitable if there are complex financial issues or significant power imbalances. 
  • Limited legal oversight might lead to overlooked details that could cause problems later. 
  • Less opportunity to contest unfair terms if one party feels pressured to agree. 

Overall, this type of divorce is typically faster, less expensive, and less stressful, as it avoids the need for drawn-out court battles. 

How much does an uncontested divorce cost?

An uncontested divorce is undoubtedly more economical than a contested divorce, though the total costs can vary. Spouses who hire an attorney will pay more than those who do it by themselves, also known as pro se (or pro per in California). Here's a breakdown of the common expenses for an uncontested divorce: 

  • Court's filing fees: These vary by state and county but generally range from $80 to $400. Some courts may offer a filing fee waiver or reduction for individuals who demonstrate financial hardship. 
  • Attorney fees: If you hire an attorney, costs can range from $1,000 to more than $4,000, depending on the complexity of your case and the attorney's rates. However, some attorneys offer flat fees for uncontested divorces, which can help keep costs predictable. 
  • Mediation: If you use a private mediator to settle conflicts with your spouse, expect to pay between $3,000 and $8,000. Generally, both spouses split the total. In some cases, spouses can also use court-sponsored mediation services for little to no cost. 
  • Document preparation: If you use document preparation or legal assistance services to finalize your settlement, these can add between $100 and $500 to your costs. 

Altogether, an uncontested divorce can cost between a few hundred dollars and more than $3,000 if lawyers or mediators get involved. 

How to know if an uncontested divorce is right for you

Although an uncontested divorce's financial and time savings make it appealing to many, it's not the best option for every situation. Take a look at these key indicators to determine if an uncontested divorce is right for you: 

  1. You're on the same page with your spouse. You know of all past and present assets your spouse holds (meaning there isn't a fear of secret real estate or a hidden bank account). You both can also agree on how to divide everything up. 
  2. You can agree on custody. If there are minor children, you and your spouse can create a custody arrangement that works for everyone.
  3. You want the process to go through quickly. Since an uncontested divorce requires less time from all parties, it can be a good option if you want the divorce proceedings to end quickly.
  4. You want to minimize the cost of divorce. An uncontested divorce makes sense if the combined value of the couple's assets doesn't justify the costs of a more involved legal procedure. 
  5. You want to make an effort to end things amicably. An uncontested divorce doesn't necessarily mean that couples agree on everything from the get-go, but the process does require cooperation and compromise in order to be successful. 

In short, an uncontested divorce makes sense if both spouses want to dissolve the marriage on good terms with minimal court time, legal fees, and family drama. However, if you feel pressured or taken advantage of, it might be time to consult an attorney and ensure you receive what's fair. 

How to get an uncontested divorce

Spouses who decide to get an uncontested divorce can proceed in a few different ways, whether through attorneys, mediation, or self-preparation. However, they must meet any state residency requirements and, in some cases, undergo a mandatory waiting period before proceeding. The uncontested divorce process varies across the nation but typically includes these five parts: 

1. Agree on terms

Before filing anything with the court, it's always a good idea to consult your spouse first. Both of you need to mutually agree on all key issues, including marital property division, child custody, debt allocation, and spousal support. Clear communication and willingness to compromise are essential for this step, as the divorce can later become contested if you're not aligned with your spouse's expectations. 

2. Prepare, file, and serve the petition 

One spouse, known as the petitioner, prepares and files a divorce petition or complaint with the local court. This document initiates the legal process and outlines the terms of the divorce. As previously discussed, divorce filing fees vary by state but typically range from $80 to $400. Next, the other spouse (the respondent) must be legally served with the divorce summons, which may involve delivering the documents through a sheriff, process server, or certified mail. 

3. Respond and confirm agreement

The respondent reviews the petition and responds, confirming their agreement with the terms. This step ensures that both parties are on the same page and willing to proceed without disputes. 

4. Draft and submit the settlement agreement

Both spouses work together to draft a fair settlement agreement that details all terms of their separation. This agreement covers all significant issues outlined in the first step (as well as any required by your state). Additionally, the court likely requires other divorce forms, such as financial affidavits, information for minor children, or a grounds for divorce statement. All of these documents must be submitted on time and filled out correctly for the court to proceed. 

5. Court review and final judgment

The court reviews the settlement agreement to ensure it's fair and complies with state laws. In some cases, spouses may need to meet for a brief court hearing, allowing the judge to ask questions and ensure both spouses understand the implications of their agreement. Once approved, the court issues a judgment of divorce and officially ends the marriage based on the agreed terms. 

How an attorney can help

Anyone can get an uncontested divorce on their own, but with all the legal nuances, state-specific requirements, and court procedures to consider, working with an attorney is a safer option. From drafting legal documents to helping you navigate your state's laws, an attorney ensures you're well-prepared from the start. Better yet, you can even meet with an uncontested divorce attorney online. That way, you get the best of both worlds: low, predictable costs with the assurance your divorce is handled the right way. 

FAQs

For more information, check out what other readers typically ask about uncontested divorces.

What's the difference between an uncontested divorce and a no-fault divorce? 

An uncontested divorce occurs when both spouses agree on all terms, while a no-fault divorce occurs when neither party blames the other for the marriage's failure. A divorce can be both no-fault and uncontested, which often simplifies and speeds up the court process significantly. 

What's the quickest divorce you can get? 

The quickest divorce is typically an uncontested divorce. If both parties agree on all terms and meet state-specific requirements, such as residency, the process can be completed in as little as a few weeks to a few months. However, this depends on the state's and county's procedures. 

Do you have to go to court for an uncontested divorce? 

In many cases, an uncontested divorce can be finalized without a court appearance. However, some states require a brief court hearing to review and approve the settlement agreement. Check your state's requirements to determine if a court appearance is necessary. 

Can I handle an uncontested divorce without a lawyer? 

Yes, you can handle an uncontested divorce without a lawyer, but seeking professional guidance is advisable. A lawyer can ensure that all documents are correctly prepared and filed, not to mention that your rights are fully protected. With a lawyer, you're more likely to avoid legal pitfalls and get the best outcome for your situation.

This story was produced by LegalZoom and reviewed and distributed by Stacker Media.






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