The most frequent comment I hear from clients is “I’ve never done this before”. This is true and probably they will only do it once. Some people do extensive research and have a lot of knowledge but don’t know how to put it together and some of my clients are complete strangers to the process. My job is to be a guide to the novice and to those who have extensive knowledge. Here is a basic run through of beginning the legal process in Washington State. Keep in mind this is general information only and your case may be different. Also each county is slightly different. Most of this information is true of every county but where there is a significant difference I will point it out.
The process begins with the filing of a Petition of Dissolution of Marriage, (or domestic partnership). This gets you a case number and starts the process. It is not necessary to have all the details of the divorce worked out before filing the petition. Typically the Petition will have a Petitioner and a Respondent. If the parties are in agreement about the divorce, they may file a Joinder, meaning the other party joins in the petition. In a cooperative divorce, my colleagues and I have developed a Co-Petition as less adversarial. This is a bit of an end run we so far have been able to accomplish as attorneys. Here I would have to say “Don’t try this at home” as it is not yet recognizable by the courts.
If both parties have signed the petition there is no need for a Summons or Service of Process. Otherwise one must file a Summons and have “proper service”. Service can be accomplished by the party acknowledging receipt or being served by a process server. Sometimes the other party’s attorney will “accept service”. You cannot serve the other party yourself. Two important things to note here: One, there really is no reason to avoid service. It won’t stop the divorce ultimately and you could be charged with the costs of a process server and even extra attorney fees. Second thing to note, the ninety day waiting period begins when the other person has been served or acknowledges receipt.
The on line forms seem onerous and I see people spend weeks, even months gathering information. This is not necessary. The Petition can be very generic. (There is an exception here that is too complex for this article and falls under the cautions below.) Most issues are “to be determined”. Even the date of separation is not necessary. It is acceptable to say “the parties are not separated” or even “to be determined later”. The date of separation has some important legal significance and if you don’t know what they are, you don’t want to lock yourself into the wrong date.
Now that a Petition has been filed, it is public record, available for everyone to see. This includes potential mortgage lenders. This is why sometimes when working with couples, I recommend waiting to file a petition if there is a possibility of obtaining a new mortgage or refinancing an existing mortgage to remove one of the party’s names.
There is a minimum 90 day waiting period in Washington State before a divorce can be final. However nothing happens on the 91st day. It is up to you to prepare and present final papers to the court. I can’t begin to tell you the problems that have been caused by people that thought their divorce would be final in 90 days and did nothing else. You must prepare a Decree of Dissolution and have it signed by a judge.
Once the Petition has been filed, the couple can start working out the details of their divorce. This includes Property Settlement, Child Support, Parenting Plan and perhaps, Spousal Maintenance. While some couples move very swiftly, most people take longer than 90 days to work out these details.
This is the procedure for beginning the Divorce process in Washington State. I will address how to complete the divorce in a future article.
Special considerations that really require the help of an attorney: Spouse lives in another state, don’t know where the spouse lives or the children and spouse live in another state.
If you are trying to file your own divorce, I am available for "legal coaching" and can help get you started. Of course, I also can do it all for you for a flat fee. Let's talk.