The actual process will vary from state to state, county to county, even judge to judge. The more you know about the process, the less likely you will be shocked by it. Do not let the process overcome the people. Here are the basics.
Complaint or Petition
A family law case, in the eyes of the state, starts with the filing of a complaint or petition. One must file a petition or complaint that identifies the parties, the date of the marriage (if applicable), and a request for the divorce, custody, child support, distributing debts and assets, alimony, and/or legal fees. One need not provide every detail about the lousy relationship or a detailed request for everything under the sun in the actual initial pleadings.
When your ex files first and says nasty things about you, do not panic and give into process anger. You and your lawyer will answer the complaint and deny the accusations as appropriate. You need not return serve with a host of nasty allegations.
Property Settlement Agreement (PSA or Agreement)
Property Settlement Agreement is the written agreement that provides for the division of debts and assets, division of income, and provision for care of the children. The document may be two pages for a very short-term, no asset, and no child divorce or hundreds of pages for a high asset, complex divorce. The document sets forth a roadmap of when assets and support will be exchanged and the ground rules for co-parenting. Non-divorce agreements can follow the same format as a divorce settlement agreement.
Fancy terms such as interrogatories, depositions, financial disclosures, case information statements, and subpoenas infiltrate your vocabulary during your family law case. Forget about the words, their meaning, who sends them, who responds to them, and the timing of the exchange of paper documents. Fancy words are nothing more than the documents that support the assets and debts accumulated during the relationship and the parties’ ability to earn money to support children and supported partners. If you anticipate a break-up or are in the process of planning a break-up, you should make copies and store away from your partner the following basic documents:
A Baker’s Dozen
- One to five years of tax returns — all schedules and attachments
- Three recent pay stubs for you and your partner
- Social Security Lifetime Earnings Statement
- 12 months of all household bills
- 12 months of credit card statements
- 12 months of pension statements
- 12 months of investment statements
- 12 months of car payments, boat payments, or other revolving loan payments
- Titles to cars, boats, RVs, motorcycles, other vehicles or movable personal property
- Proof of substantial gifts to one partner or the other during or prior to the relationship
- List of any substantial pre-marital assets
- Photographs of any lavish vacations
- Bills for any lavish vacations
Once you have all of those documents stored safely, you are in a position to answer 99% of the possible inquires made during the course of family law discovery.