The Arizona divorce process
A step-by-step guide
If you are meeting with an Arizona family law attorney for the first time about a divorce matter, you almost certainly want to know what to expect during the legal process. To help prepare yourself for what lies ahead, you should get at least a general idea of how long the process takes, what it might cost, what is required of you, and what to expect. Not all these things can be determined precisely at this early stage, but the more information you gather, the better off you will be.
How long it takes
Let’s start with the length of time. If you are new to the process, you may be surprised by how long it takes. A divorce in Arizona takes at least three months but can take up to a year and even longer, depending on the circumstances. The “even longer” part is probably not what you hoped to hear, but it is important to be realistic and understand that these matters take time.
The most important variable affecting the length of the divorce process is whether any children are involved. If even one minor child is at issue, the divorce matter can become exponentially more complicated. Both you and the other party will be a required to take a parenting class, address parenting time and legal decision-making, calculate child support, and provide documentation of income and expenses. Also, the judge likely will require at least one hearing before permitting the divorce.
The second most important variable is whether you and the other party can work together to reach full agreement on everything that must be decided and divided in a divorce. If so, you can get an uncontested dissolution/consent decree. Otherwise, the matter becomes a contested divorce with one or more evidentiary hearings, a trial, or both. If you file for divorce and the other party does not respond or participate in the process—or at least does not do so in a timely manner—the court may award you a default decree.
The third most important variable is whether the other party hires an attorney, and if so, how aggressive the attorney is and what tactics he or she employs. It is unethical for an attorney to file frivolous motions or excessive discovery requests with the sole intention of delaying the process, charging more billable hours, or overwhelming the opposing party. But it happens. Hopefully, your attorney, if you hire one, will not behave this way because most judges see right through it. Also, your attorney may use the other attorney’s actions as the basis for a request for reimbursement of your attorney’s fees or even imposition of sanctions on the other attorney. But it is important to realize that the opposing counsel’s actions may unavoidably increase the length and cost of the process in the meantime.
The following is a high-level step-by-step outline of typical divorce proceedings in Arizona family courts. Some of the steps may not apply, depending on the nature of the matter and the direction it takes.
Fill out and file papers to begin the divorce
This step is a tedious exercise. It involves completing the many forms the court requires to start a divorce case, which may include a:
- Family Court/Sensitive Data Coversheet, which contains confidential information commonly sought by identity thieves, such as Social Security numbers and birthdates. The court keeps this information safe, and it is not to be shared with the other party.
- A cover sheet, which may or may not be required, depending on the county.
- Summons to respond or appear.
- Preliminary injunction, which tells what the parties can and cannot do while the divorce is pending.
- Health insurance notice.
- Creditor notice.
- Petition for Dissolution of (Non-Covenant) Marriage With/Without Minor Children.
- Notice of Appearance, which is used only if an attorney is representing you from the start.
Some court filings require payment of a filing fee. These fees may vary from county to county in Arizona and are subject to change. In Maricopa County, Arizona, the filing fee for a petition is currently $341.00. For a response, the filing fee is $270.00.
Serve the other party
Service of process is formal notice to the opposing party that you have begun the legal process. It can be accomplished in one of three ways:
Certified mail: The quickest, easiest and cheapest way to serve the other party is usually through certified mail with return receipt. Restricted delivery also is needed if anyone else lives with the opposing party who might inadvertently sign, invalidating the service. The cost is around $10.00 to $15.00, depending on the weight (thickness of documents) and whether you ask for a physical postcard to be returned and/or electronic confirmation.
Process server: Sometimes the opposing party refuses to sign for certified mail if he or she expects to be served legal papers. In this case, you need to hire a process server to deliver service of process. Typically, the cost of a process server ranges from $75.00 to $150.00, depending on the type of provider (constable/sheriff or private company), how far he or she has to go to find the person, and how hard the person is trying to evade service.
Service by alternate methods: If you are unable to serve the other party by certified mail or process server, you can ask the court for permission to serve by alternate methods. You must show you have exhausted all reasonable methods first or have no idea where the person can be found. Service by posting is one option. It involves a process server physically attaching a posting and court papers in a conspicuous place on the person’s last-known residential property. Service by publication is another option. It requires putting a legal notice in a newspaper of general circulation in the county where the person was last known to be living, for four weeks in a row. The cost will likely be between $100.00 and $200.00, depending on the publication. The publication will give you a quote up front, prepare the legal notice, and provide proof of publication.
Take a parenting class
You must take a parenting class if you have any minor children and have a pending family court case. You are required to take the course within 45 days of the respondent being served. The cost is $50.00. For more information or to sign up, see the Parent Information Program and Approved Parent Information Program Classes pages on the Maricopa County Superior Court’s website. Or call Family Court Conciliation Services at 602-506-1448.
Wait to file a consent decree
If you and your spouse agree on all terms of the divorce that the court requires you to address, and if you continue to agree on everything after filing the divorce petition, all you have to do is wait at least 60 days after service is effected to submit a consent decree. Each of you must sign it. You may have to wait a few days to a few weeks longer for a judge to sign it. Technically, the judge has up to 60 days to issue his or her ruling or order. Normally, you can expect to be divorced in about 90 days total.
If there are no children involved, you do not have to go to a hearing. If one or more children are involved, you may be required to go to at least one hearing. The law says a hearing is at the judge’s discretion. Judges are so busy they may not make you do this.
Wait for a response
If the opposing party is served in-state, he or she has 20 days to respond (25 days if the party was served by mail). If the other party was served out-of-state, he or she has 30 days to respond (35 days if the party was served by mail). In determining the deadline for responding, you do not count the day that the opposing party was served. You start counting from the day after that, and include all weekends and holidays. If the last day falls on a weekend or holiday, then the opposing party has until the end of the next business day to file.
File for a default judgment
If the other party does not respond in a timely manner, you can ask the court to start default proceedings against him or her for failure to timely appear or file a response. The opposing party gets another 10 days’ grace period after that to file a response without penalty. If the party still does not file a response, then you file a final request for a default judgment along with a proposed default decree. Most likely you will likely get everything you asked for in the petition, as long as it was reasonable. But you have to wait at least 90 days from the date of filing the petition before a judge can sign off on a proposed default decree.
Go to court
If the other party responds in a timely manner, you are headed to court. The clerk’s office automatically refers the case to the assigned judge’s division for his or her assistant to set up a preliminary hearing, known as a Resolution Management Conference. At the hearing, the judge wants to hear from both sides whether any kind of agreement has been reached on any terms of the divorce. He or she refers the parties to Conciliation Court for mediation if there are any remaining terms to be addressed. If this does not result in a full agreement, the court sets a trial date.
If you must go to court, make sure you are represented by an experienced Arizona family law attorney. You and your family have too much at stake to go it alone.