Divorce and Family Law Information

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Q:  What is meant by the term divorce?


A:  A divorce, sometimes called a “decree of dissolution of marriage,” is a court order terminating a marriage.  After a divorce, the marriage no longer exists.  Unlike an annulment (see below), which states that the marriage was never valid or never existed, a divorce is the termination of a valid marriage.  The outcome of the divorce should seek to resolve all issues between the parties, such as the division of property, child custody and visitation, and spousal and child support.


Q:  What is an annulment?

A:  An annulment is a court order declaring that a marriage is not valid and was never valid.  The most common ground for annulment is fraud-- when one spouse never disclosed to the other spouse important information such as a previous marriage, an infectious disease, the inability to have children, or the desire not to have children.  In addition, an annulment might be granted because one party is already married, the parties are too closely related, or one party is underage and did not obtain appropriate parental consent.  An experienced family lawyer can help you determine if an annulment is appropriate in your case.


Q:  What is a separation?


A:  A separation occurs when a married couple decides they no longer want to live together, and to live apart for a while, though they are still married. In some states, living apart for a certain amount of time can constitute grounds for divorce or desertion.


Q:  What is mediation?


A:  Mediation is an informal process where you and your spouse meet with a neutral third party, called a “mediator,” in an attempt to try to negotiate an agreement in regards to your divorce.  The goal is to reach an agreement on things like property distribution, child support and child custody without going to court.  Some mediators prefer to meet with both of you at the same time, while others prefer to meet with each of you separately and act as a "go between."  You and your spouse should discuss your preferences as to how you want the mediation to be run and make sure that the mediator you select will accommodate your preferences. Mediation is most successful in cases where there are not many contested issues and the parties on relatively good terms.


Q:  I want to initiate a divorce.  What is the first step I should take?


A:  There are many complex issues when it comes to divorce—from the division of property and debts, to child custody, child support, and visitation rights.  You should seek a qualified family law lawyer before beginning the process of divorce. 

If you have been married only a short time, have no children and little property, it may seem financially advantageous to “do it yourself.”  However, timing can often be crucial in getting a divorce, and an attorney can best advise you when it will make the most sense in terms of insurance and taxes.  A skilled attorney can help you avoid landmines that may cost you money down the road, and will represent your best interests in resolving any financial complications that may arise.  An attorney also can help avoid the possibility of one party claiming that he or she was taken advantage of because all facts were not disclosed.  A lawyer can also help you determine if mediation or a more collaborative approach is appropriate in your case.


Q:  Can my spouse and I use the same lawyer?


A:  When a couple thinks they agree on all issues involved in a divorce, it may seem logical to attempt to save money and use one attorney to just “handle the paperwork.”  This is almost always a  bad idea because as opposing parties, your interests will never be completely aligned.  Lawyers recognize the possibility of conflict of interest, in which it is impossible to represent both sides fairly.  Most attorneys would advise against using a shared attorney. However, some states allow a lawyer to represent clients with opposing interests if the lawyer has informed both clients of the conflict in writing and the clients have agreed in writing to the dual representation. When an attorney does represent both sides, it may open the door to malpractice claims if you were harmed by the lawyer's dual representation.

Q:  Do I need to give a reason to get divorced?


A:  Each state has its own laws determining when and under what circumstances a divorce can be sought and granted.  In some states, both sides can agree to obtain a divorce with only a brief waiting period.  Other states, however, have laws that claim to permit a divorce only if there are “grounds,” meaning that one spouse is at “fault” for the divorce.  Talk to your attorney for more information.


Q:  What if I want a divorce and my spouse does not?


A:  Divorce can be entered unilaterally, meaning that as long as one party seeks a divorce, the marriage can be ended.  That being said, the divorce process goes much more smoothly and quickly if both parties agree upon getting divorced and one party is not trying to impede the process, which can be accomplished by various means of contesting the divorce, hiding assets, etc.


Q:  What do the terms fault and no fault mean?


A:  When a state requires “fault” in order to obtain a divorce, it means that one party must blame the other for the failure of the marriage by citing wrongdoing.  Grounds for fault can include adultery, physical or mental cruelty, desertion, alcohol or drug abuse, insanity, impotence or infecting the other spouse with a sexually transmitted disease.

Many states have turned to “no-fault” divorces, as it is an easier and generally less acrimonious method of ending a marriage.  A no-fault divorce is one in which neither party blames the other for the breakdown of the marriage.  Both spouses agree that "irreconcilable differences" have arisen, and that neither time nor counseling will save the marriage; it simply will not work.  An attorney can explain if you live in a fault or no-fault state.

Q:  What is the difference between contested divorce and uncontested divorce?

A:  A contested divorce is one where the couple have one or more issues, usually custody and property, that they cannot settle and are not resolved.  An uncontested divorce is one without unresolved issues and when a final judgment can be entered without a trial. When there are no contested issues in the divorce, it may appropriate to try mediation or a collaborative law approach.


Q:  Is there a requirement that I physically live apart from my spouse when I file for divorce?


A:  There is no requirement that you live apart, unless you are proceeding on no-fault grounds that are based upon separation.  It is important to keep track of when you began living apart from a spouse for the purpose of accounting for community property and debts incurred after that date, as it would be considered separate property after the date of separation.


Q:  How is property divided in a divorce?


A:  How property is divided depends upon the laws of the state where you are filing for divorce.  There are nine community property states - Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin.


These states generally consider all property that has been acquired during the marriage to be community property, with the exception of property acquired through a gift or inheritance.  Property includes personal property, cars, real estate, shared savings and checking accounts, stocks, bonds, shares or interest in a business, and insurance policies.  You might think property is something with value, but in fact even things that you might think have "no value" can be classified as property.  Examples include: debt (auto loans, credit card debt) goodwill, business name, professional degree or license, trade marks, etc.  Even if one spouse has earned all the money or a greater portion of the money to acquire the property, all the property is considered community property.  While there are a number of differences in each state, all states have special laws that operate on the theory that both spouses contribute equally to the marriage; thus all property acquired during the marriage is the result of the combined efforts of both spouses.  In community property jurisdictions, spouses equally own all community property (fifty percent owned by the husband and fifty percent owned by the wife).

Non-community property states generally use the concept of marital property.  Property that is acquired by either spouse individually or the couple together during a marriage is considered marital property. The time frame "during the marriage" starts as of the day the couple marries, and generally is regarded as ending on the date that the spouses begin to live apart (or the date that the spouses intend to live apart if they are unable to physically separate).  Marital property is then divided in a manner that the court finds equitable.


Q:  What does equitable distribution mean?


A:  "Equitable" means a "fair" distribution not necessarily an "equal" distribution.  It may be more equitable, given the state of the marriage and the conditions of the spouses, for the majority of the property to go to the husband, instead of the wife, or vice versa.  In some cases, equitable could mean an equal split of all of the marital property. A skilled attorney can help you maximize your share of the equitable distribution.


Q:  What about separate property?


A:  Separate property is property that is not part of the marriage as a whole, but rather belongs exclusively to either the husband or the wife. Any property that can be "alienated" (disposed of, sold, given away, left in a will) by one partner without requiring the permission of the other partner is separate property. Common examples are property acquired through gift or an inheritance, or one spouse's interest in property acquired before marriage. However, keep in mind that the laws governing what constitutes separate property vary from state to state.  In some states, these same gifts and inheritances would be considered separate property only if they were also kept separate from the spouse and not shared.

Separate property is not divided during the divorce, but rather is retained by the spouse who owned it during the marriage.


Q:  How will are debts be divided?


A:  In addition to the property acquired during the marriage, the debts incurred during the marriage is divided upon divorce. Dividing the debt upon divorce determines who is responsible to repay the debt.

If both spouses co-signed for a debt, both spouses will probably be held to "joint and several liability" for the debt. "Joint and several liability" means that each spouse is responsible for the entire debt, but also the spouses are jointly responsible for the debt. When a joint and several liability is divided, the debt is attributed to both spouses. Often, however, one spouse is made responsible for the entire amount of the debt. This is generally offset by an "equalization" payment; that is, the spouse who pays the debt receives more property in the settlement than the spouse who is left free from the debt.

In some states debts that were incurred for the benefit of the family are joint and several liabilities of both spouses. For example, housing, furniture, furnishings for the home, child care and children's doctor expenses would be considered as being incurred for the benefit of the family. Since both spouses benefited from these family expenses, both spouses would be responsible for the repayment of these debts.

Expenses that were incurred solely for the benefit of one spouse, such as a vacation for one spouse, or a hobby of a spouse, may be left as the responsibility of the spouse who obtained the benefit. However, in most community property states, both spouses are equally responsible for the repayment of debt incurred during the marriage, even if only one spouse enjoyed the benefit.

Typically, the debts that one spouse brings into the marriage (separate or non-marital debt) remain the responsibility of that spouse. In special circumstances (in community property states), both spouses can be held responsible for separate (non-marital) debt.

When a joint tax return is filed, the Internal Revenue Service holds both spouses to joint and several liability for the tax.


Q:  What about my pension or retirement fund?


A:  In most states, pensions and retirement funds accrued during the time of marriage are considered part of the community/marital property that is to be divided among the parties in a divorce. If the pension is already being paid, the pension plan administrator can usually pay your portion directly to you.  In some states, pensions and retirement funds accrued during marriage but that have not yet “vested” or begun paying out, remain separate property if the marriage ends before the retirement fund or pension begins to make payments.


Q:  Would my spouse be entitled to a share of the retirement I earn after we are divorced?

A:  It depends on the state. In some states, the ex's interest ends with your divorce, so the pension benefits accrued during those years would normally be yours. In other states, the benefits sort of build on top of the prior benefits, and the ex may enjoy a share in the benefits accrued during those years also.


Q:  What is alimony?


A:  Today, alimony is more commonly termed “spousal support” or “spousal maintenance,” referring to payments or transfers of money or assets from one spouse to another after a divorce. Spousal support laws throughout the United States seek to prevent a divorced spouse from suffering from a decrease in his or her standard of living. Often times after divorce, one spouse is untrained or has been out of the workforce for such a significant amount of time that it would be difficult, if not impossible, for them to quickly attain a job or professional position that would allow them to maintain the standard of living that they may have had while they were married.


Q:  Do all divorces involve a spousal support settlement?


A:  No, this is a common misconception. Only about ten to fifteen percent of all divorces or separations have any sort of spousal support as part of the final divorce judgment or decree.


Q:  What is rehabilitative alimony?


A:  Rehabilitative alimony is financial support that is provided for a short period of time; to allow the receiving spouse time to get adjusted, establish him or herself, financially. This type of alimony will allow the divorced spouse time to "rehabilitate" him or herself and become completely self-supporting. 


Q:  Are spousal support payments considered expenses for tax purposes?


A:  Yes, in general, spousal support payments are counted as deductible expenses for the spouse making the payments, and considered taxable income for the spouse receiving the payments.


Q:  What is child custody?


A:  Child custody laws throughout the United States seek to provide some sense of order to the disruption of divorce and separation in efforts to smooth over this transition from a unified, nuclear family to a two-household family, with the spouses/parents living separate and apart.

One parent, generally termed the "custodial parent," will receive custody of the child(ren) from the court. The child(ren) will live for the most part with this custodial parent and visit with the "noncustodial parent" for short periods of time (hours or days). One exception to this rule is the "joint physical custody" arrangement.

Under joint physical custody, the time is divided more evenly or equitably (not always the same thing, so ask your attorney what may happen in your particular case). The child will spend significant amounts of time with each parent, often weeks at a time.


Q:  What is joint legal custody?


A:  Joint legal custody, which is much more common than joint physical custody, means that both parents make decisions regarding the child’s health, education, welfare, etc. Joint physical custody means that the children spend a significant amount of time with each parent (multiple overnights in a row on a consistent basis). This does not necessarily mean that the time with the children is divided evenly between the parents.


Q:  How is child custody determined?


A:  Courts use the standard of the “best interests of the children” in determining child custody arrangements. Each state has laws that govern child custody and each state lists several factors that the court will consider in deciding which custody arrangement will serve in “the best interests of the children.” That said, these several factors often provide only minimal guidance for the judge. The “best interests of the children” standard gives a good deal of power to the judge and is typically the most influential factor for the judge in making a custody decisions.


Q:  What is visitation?


A:  When one parent is granted primary custody of the child or children, that parent is termed the "custodial parent." The "noncustodial parent" is granted visitation rights. Through visitation, the state and the judge are attempting to provide a system whereby the parent can maintain a healthy relationship with his or her child.


Q:  Do all parents have the right to visitation?  What if I don't want my parents to visit with my ex-spouse?

A:  Typically the spouse who does not have physical custody of the child has the legal right to visitation. These rights can be withheld if evidence can be brought forth proving that it is in the best interest of the child not to see the spouse (examples: excessive use of alcohol, physical or verbal abusiveness). The amount and schedule of visitation is stated in the final agreement and can vary according to each family’s situation, lifestyle and circumstance, and may be quite small or quite substantial.


Q:  What is child support?

A:  Each state has law requiring parents to support their children. It doesn’t matter if the parents are married, or if they are living together. The responsibility of child support is that of the parents as individuals or as a unit. Indeed, it doesn’t matter if the parents have not had no continued contact after the conception of the child. All parents are legally responsible for child support. The term "child support" covers all the economic necessities of life required by a child. These necessities include, but are not limited to, food, clothing, shelter, education, medical care, and other day-to-day expenses.


Q:  How is child support determined?


A:  The child support guidelines of your state set out the method of calculating child support. Some states are rather simplistic, considering net income and applying a percentage, while others consider many other factors such as overnights with each parent, medical expenses, prior child support, alimony, retirement contributions, FICA, federal, state and local taxes, etc.


Q:  What if my child's financial needs change—is it possible to modify the child support agreement?


A:  A child support award is an order of the court, and as such it exists outside another agreement. If you find that your circumstances have changed, and the existing child support award does not apply to these new circumstances, you can petition the court for a "modification" of the award. Be prepared to explain to the judge’s complete satisfaction your reasons for requesting a modification. Typical reasons include: the child is now  living with the other parent, the non-custodial parent has more/less overnight visitation with the child, either parent has a substantial increase or decrease in annual income, child needs special care or healthcare, substantial increases or decreases in the child's expenses, or a change in the the child support guidelines of your state.


Q:  Can I deduct my child support payments as an expense for tax purposes?


A:  As a general rule, child support payments are not deductible on your federal tax form by the parent paying the child support.  Similarly, child support payments are not considered income by the parent receiving the child support. The paying parent in child support may conclude that paying a lower child support and a higher spousal support will benefit them when tax time comes around. Tax consequences are often given heavy consideration in all negotiations regarding a divorce settlement.  Always consult a professional tax advisor / tax attorney for specific questions or legal advice.


Q:  What will happen to our health insurance for my dependent children and I after I divorce my spouse?

A:  Your spouse may keep the children on his or her policy. However, as you are no longer married you are no longer eligible for coverage on his policy. However most plans offer a conversion package to individual coverage under COBRA, a federal law. The cost of insurance is usually the responsibility of the separate parties after a divorce. However, coverage for the children may be available.


Q:  Once the divorce is finalized, is there any way to change it?


A:  Unless there is a provision in the separation agreement to do so, they cannot. However, there is a provision in the law to amend spousal or child support based upon a change of circumstances.

The only other provision reasonably available is fraud. If a party commits fraud in the negotiation of an agreement, it may allow for a change in the agreement to correct it.

There is also a provision in the law to correct mistakes in drafting. However, usually the mistake must not be unilateral, that is, only one party believes that the language is in error.

Q:  How much will it cost me to hire a divorce attorney?


A:  It is difficult to determine how much a divorce will cost. However, after reviewing the likely issues, a lawyer may be able to give you a range of expected expenses. Controlling the expenses in a divorce, however, is no easy task. Many of the factors contributing to legal costs are outside of your lawyer’s control. The ability of the parties to cooperate and communicate may also have a significant impact.

Your attorney will provide you with a written retainer agreement identifying the costs and hourly fees that will apply to your case. It is important that you read this document carefully and ask questions regarding any unclear issues. Once you have signed the retainer agreement, it is a binding and enforceable contract.

An attorney may also agree to charge a flat fee for handling your divorce.  Fees charged by lawyers can vary from state to state and county to county. You may find a lawyer who charges a fixed flat fee for motions after a divorce or for uncontested proceedings where the parties have reached an agreement. In such instances, the amount of work which must be performed by the lawyer can be easily determined. This is a favorable payment method since you will know at the outset the total cost of the proceeding which will allow you to budget accordingly.

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Divorce websites, including this one, provide general information about family law but do not provide legal advice or create an attorney / client relationship.  General information cannot replace experienced legal advice specific to your situation.  Consult licensed divorce lawyers / attorneys for advice about any specific problem that you have.  Divorce attorneys are governed by the Rules of Professional Conduct in their State or Commonwealth.  This website may be considered an advertisement for services under these Rules.  Information contained in this website is believed to be accurate but is not warranted or guaranteed in any way.  No attorney associated with this website is specialized or certified in any way. 


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