In an uncontested divorce, both spouses agree on all of their divorce-related issues rather than going to trial and having a judge make those decisions for them.
Every state has specific requirements for an uncontested divorce. For example, you will need to meet the state's residency requirements and waiting period before you can ask the judge to finalize your divorce. You will also need to have a signed and final marital settlement agreement (MSA) that address all the issues in your case.
In most states, the couple's MSA must cover the following issues:
The first step in the uncontested divorce process is to discuss it with your soon-to-be-ex-spouse. The hallmarks of an uncontested divorce are that you agree to get divorce and to all the issues involved in the divorce.
You'll need to file a petition for divorce (sometimes called a complaint) with your local court and pay a filing fee. If you can't afford the filing fee, most jurisdictions allow you to ask the court to waive it by submitting a fee waiver request.
Every state's uncontested divorce process varies, but generally, you'll need to submit your signed settlement agreement to the court. You might also need to file additional documents and serve the divorce papers on your spouse, and your spouse might need to file a response (which, in an uncontested divorce, should agree with all of the requests in the divorce petition).
If your state requires that you attend a final hearing, you should go prepared to answer a few questions on the record (under oath) from the judge. Usually, the purpose of this final hearing is for the court to ensure you meet the state's divorce requirements and that you both voluntarily agree to the terms of the settlement. In some states, the judge will simply review your agreement and other paperwork without a hearing. Either way, the judge will usually sign the final divorce judgment unless there's a problem.
Many states have a waiting period before your divorce can be finalized, usually between one and six months.
By far, getting an uncontested divorce is the most important way to save on the cost of divorce and get a final divorce more quickly. If at any time, however, either spouse disagrees with the provisions in the agreement or asks the judge to resolve a conflict, it will turn your uncontested divorce into a contested divorce.
A contested divorce means that you and your spouse disagree about at least some issues, which you can't resolve that require court intervention. Contested divorces often take much longer than uncontested divorces because the spouses (or their attorneys) must conduct discovery. Discovery is a legal process where both sides ask the other to produce evidence, like financial documents, text messages, and anything else relevant to the contested issue. For example, if one spouse claims that the other is hiding assets, that spouse can serve discovery including a request to produce documents, like bank records and tax returns and even send a subpoena to third parties like banks, partners, and personal accountants.
Additionally, it takes significantly longer to complete a contested divorce because spouses and their attorneys need to present evidence, such as documents and witnesses, to the court during the trial. As with any legal proceeding, the entire process costs more money the longer it takes and becomes more involved.
Aside from time and money, one of the biggest downfalls of a contested divorce is that the judge (not the spouses) maintains control over the outcome. When couples work together to create a divorce settlement agreement, they control what happens to their family. For example, although the couple may disagree on frequency and the exact days for custody exchanges, they may agree that shared custody is best for the children. However, when the court becomes involved, a judge may see custody completely different.
There are many benefits to using your state's uncontested divorce process. For example:
It depends. In most cases, couples will only need to wait for their state's mandatory waiting period to expire before the judge will finalize the divorce. For states with these waiting periods, the time is typically between one and six months.
Divorces are expensive, but uncontested divorces are historically cheaper than contested ones. Couples will need to pay the filing fee to start the legal process. Filing fees vary widely from state to state (and sometimes from county to county), but they're typically between $200 and $400. All states allow you to apply for a waiver if you can't afford to pay the fees.
If you choose to simplify the process even further by using online divorce, you will pay a fee for the service—usually between $150 and $500. And if you need a mediator's help to work out an agreement with your spouse, the cost of divorce mediation can vary a lot, depending on the specifics of your case. Finally, if you hire a lawyer—either to help with the entire uncontested divorce process or simply to review your settlement agreement—you'll have to pay the attorney's fee.
But even with these additional costs for an uncontested divorce, you'll still save a lot of money in legal fees by avoiding discovery, court hearings, and fighting between spouses and lawyers.
No state requires couples to hire attorneys to file for divorce. You can proceed without an attorney. However, if you choose to represent yourself, the court will expect you to understand the law and the documents you sign and submit to the court. It might be a good idea to at least have a lawyer review your settlement agreement, particularly if your case involves complicated issues or financial assets (such as a family business or retirement accounts).
Depending on where you live, you might have to attend a hearing to finalize your divorce. But in some states, you won't need to appear in person. A judge will simply review your paperwork, approve it (unless there's a problem), and sign the final divorce judgment.
Because you need to provide a signed settlement agreement with your divorce petition, it's unusual for an uncontested divorce to become contested. However, if you or your spouse has a change of heart and disagrees with any provision in the agreement before the judge finalizes your divorce, then you will be forced to move forward with a contested divorce.
You can contest a divorce at any point until the judge signs the final judgment of divorce. But once the judgment is entered, your divorce is final. After that, if you want to change any of the court's orders in the divorce judgment, you'll need to follow your state's steps for a "modification" of the order.