The divorce process can be confusing and frustrating if you don’t know what’s in store for you. Even worse, there are so many unfamiliar terms that divorce attorneys use on a regular basis, sometimes they forget to explain them all.
This Roadmap of the Divorce Process lays out the timeline of the divorce process in Massachusetts courts.
Prior to Filing
Once a party files for divorce, there is an Automatic Restraining Order that applies to the couple’s finances. Except in certain circumstances, neither party can sell any assets, incur new debts, change the beneficiary of their insurance or retirement, or remove the other spouse or their children from insurance coverage without permission of the other party or the court.
Although they are not prohibited by the Automatic Restraining Order, it’s wise to make the following financial preparations prior to filing for divorce:
- Establish your own bank account
- Establish your own credit card
- Close joint credit cards
Filing and Serving the Complaint
The party filing for divorce is the Plaintiff. If you are the party filing, you will need:
- A certified copy of your marriage certificate
- Social security numbers (or at least the last 4 digits) for you, your spouse, and your children
- Information about any legal actions involving your children (this is rare)
When all of the pleadings (the documents required to start the divorce) are filed with the court, the court issues a Summons. The Summons is the document notifying your spouse that you filed for divorce. The Summons has to be served on your spouse (the Defendant) by a Constable, or process server. This fee is typically around $55. The Court will need a Certificate of Service from the Constable, who usually files that with the court as part of the fee for serving the pleadings.
Your spouse or their attorney will probably file an Answer and Counterclaim for Divorce, which typically agree to certain facts and ask the court for the same things you’re asking for — custody, division of assets and debts, and other things.
Motions for Temporary Orders
If there is something about your living situation that you would like to change, you can file a Motion for Temporary Orders.
Temporary Orders are directions from the court about how the parties must act while the divorce is in process. The orders can address a long list of issues. Typically, they set forth a parenting schedule, determine the amount of support one party pays another, or detail how the parties will meet their joint expenses.
In order to get Temporary Orders, you or your attorney files a Motion, the other party responds, and both parties appear before the court in a Motion Hearing. The judge will urge the parties to “stipulate” to temporary orders. In order words, the judge wants the parties to agree to the issues at hand, and the judge will use the party’s agreement as the Temporary Orders.
Temporary Orders can be sought at any time during the divorce process.
After the Complaint has been served, the parties are required to provide certain financial documents to the other spouse. These documents are often referred to as “Rule 410” documents. Briefly, they include:
- 3 years of tax returns
- 3 years of bank account statements
- 4 most recent paystubs
- Health insurance information
- 3 years of retirement and investment statements
- Copies of any loan applications submitted over the last 3 years
- Copies of any financial statements prepared over the last 3 years
In addition to the mandatory Rule 410 disclosures, your spouse may ask you to provide other documents, answer questions, or state whether certain statements are true or false. These requests are made with formal documents called a Request for Documents, Request for Interrogatories Answered Under Oath, and Request for Admissions. Even though your attorney drafts the responses to these documents, you will need to work closely with her, to get the documents requested and to answer the questions.
The parties may ask for documents from an individual or company that is not a party to the divorce, including employers and banks. These requests are not typical.
Depositions are a typical discovery tool in the divorce toolkit. A deposition is an interview by your spouse’s attorney, under oath. Your attorney will arrange the details and prepare you, if you’re the party who will be deposed.
Pre-Trial Conference and 4-Way Meeting
The Court will schedule a Pre-Trial Conference 6 months after the was commenced. Although it is called a “pre-trial” conference, many cases settle at this time.
Before the Pre-Trial Conference, both parties and their attorneys have to have a “4-Way Meeting” to try to resolve some or all of the issues. If all or most issues are resolved, the parties draft a Separation Agreement.
If there are issues that the parties still cannot resolve, each attorney drafts a Pre-Trial Memo that they present to the Court at the Pre-Trial Conference. Many judges will review the memos and tell the parties how they would decide the issues, if all of the facts in the memos are proven to be true. At that point, the judge asks the parties to go into the hallway and resolve the issues, if possible. If all issues are resolved, the parties sign a Separation Agreement and present it before the Court. 30 days later, the Court will issue a Judgment of Divorce Nisi (see below).
If the parties still cannot resolve important issues in the case, the court will set a trial date.
There is no jury in a divorce trial. The judge makes the final decisions. Otherwise, a trial looks very much like what you expect: Each party calls witnesses and presents evidence, and the other party can cross-examine the witnesses and try to exclude certain evidence. At the end of the trial, the judge will issue a ruling, in the form of a Judgment of Divorce Nisi.
Trials can take as little as half a day and as long as 5 days or more. Divorce trials are usually spaced out over several weeks, sometimes months. Expect that the judge will take several months to issue the final judgment in the case.
Judgment of Divorce Nisi
“Nisi” is the Latin word for “unless,” and in this context means that the Judgment Divorce will take effect after 90 days has passed. Once the “nisi period” has passed, it becomes a Judgment of Divorce Absolute. At that point, the parties are finally divorced.
Unless you’re a divorce attorney, the divorce process can be daunting and confusing. Be sure to bookmark this page, so you can refer to it when you’re wondering “what’s next?”