If you're facing a divorce in New York, it pays to do your homework. Whether you plan to hire a lawyer or get a do-it-yourself divorce, you're going to have to make some decisions, and you should know what to expect. So the more you can familiarize yourself with New York divorce laws, the further ahead of the game you'll be.
New York has two basic requirements that you must meet in order to get a divorce in the state: a legally accepted reason for ending your marriage, and a residency requirement.
To begin a divorce case in New York, you must have one of the legally acceptable reasons, or "grounds, for ending your marriage. New York has both "fault" and "no-fault" grounds. Fault grounds come into play when you're accusing your spouse of wrongdoing, such as adultery, mental or physical cruelty, or desertion. With no-fault grounds, neither spouse is blaming the other for the collapse of the marriage.
New York law provides three no-fault grounds:
In New York, a judge may not grant a divorce based on the marriage's breakdown unless all of the issues in the divorce have been resolved, either by the judge or the spouses themselves, in a marital settlement agreement. (N.Y. Dom. Rel. Law § 170 (2022).)
Because your spouse is likely to dispute claims of misconduct when you choose one of the fault-based divorce grounds, you're almost always better off filing for a no-fault divorce if you want to avoid an unnecessary (and costly) legal battle.
Before you can file for divorce in New York, you must meet at least one of the following criteria:
(N.Y. Dom. Rel. Law § 230 (2022).)
The New York Courts website provides an overview of the divorce process, as well as forms you'll need to move forward. If you're the one starting the divorce process (the "plaintiff"), you'll need to complete and file certain documents with the court, including:
When you've completed the forms and signed them in the presence of a notary, make at least two copies and bring them to the county clerk's office in the county where either you or your spouse lives. (N.Y. C.P.L.R. § 530 (2022).)
You'll need to purchase an index number, which will go on all the documents.
The requirements and procedures for filing for divorce may vary from county to county. Check with the clerk's office of the county where you're filing to determine the local rules. If you're interested, you can also ask about filing your forms electronically, which is available in some counties.
When you submit your divorce papers to the court, you have to pay various fees at different times. The total fees (including the initial fee for purchasing an "index number") are at least $335 but are always subject to change.
If you can't afford to pay the filing fees, you can submit a request for a fee waiver. Based on the information you provide about your income, assets, and debts, the court will determine whether you qualify. Information necessary for a waiver may vary by county, so ask your county clerk's office about the local requirements.
After you've filed your initial divorce papers, the process of getting a final divorce in New York depends in large part on whether your case is contested or uncontested, as well as local rules.
In an uncontested divorce, the spouses have agreed about all the issues involved in ending their marriage, including:
Many couples attempt to settle any disputes before they file for divorce, often with the help of mediation. That way, once they have a settlement agreement, the rest of the divorce process will be relatively simple, and the couple can request that the court include the agreement in the judgment of divorce.
Also, if couples have a settlement agreement, they may use an online divorce service that will supply the correct forms and basically walk them through the process.
Here are the basic steps for an uncontested divorce in New York:
The court will consider your New York divorce to be contested when you and your spouse have disputes over any issues in your case, such as child custody and visitation, child support, alimony, or property and debt distribution.
Contested cases are much more complex than uncontested ones and involve extra steps in the process, including the following:
There are also additional forms in contested cases, including financial disclosure statements. These documents require you to provide a great deal of data about your income and assets, and it's imperative that you be thorough and honest in completing them. A spouse who fails to disclose all accounts, debts, or assets could face penalties in a divorce case, such as fines and possible jail time.
Even in divorces that start out as contested cases, most couples manage to reach agreement on their issues at some point during the divorce process, usually with the help of their lawyers, a mediator, or both. (In fact, New York now requires "alternative dispute resolution," such as mediation, in contested divorces.)
If spouses don't settle all their issues, they'll have to go to trial to have a judge make the final decision on unresolved matters.
Some disputes are more difficult to resolve than others. Without an agreement, New York law will guide judges in their decisions on these issues:
Contested divorces tend to be very expensive. (Think legal fees.) The cost of divorce climbs as cases drag on without a settlement—and the bills are highest for couples who need a trial to resolve their issues.
The amount of time it will take to complete your case will largely depend on the type of divorce. Obviously, an uncontested divorce will take less time than a contested one, because the spouses have resolved all their issues. So there's nothing left to fight about.
You certainly have the right to represent yourself in your divorce. But whether you should do that is a different matter. Self-representation (known as appearing "pro se") is most practical when you have an uncontested case, or you have no minor or dependent children and very few assets. But in situations where you have custody disputes or a significant amount of property, you may be better off retaining an attorney. Divorce laws can be quite complicated. A qualified divorce lawyer will know the intricacies of the law, as well as the ins-and-outs of the court system.
Remember, you're likely going to have to live with the results of your case well after the divorce is over. If, down the road, you realize you made a mistake, there's no guarantee you'll be able to correct it. So it pays to get it right the first time.