What Is a Contested Divorce? Everything You Need To Know

By Divorce.com staff
Updated Mar 15, 2023


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The decision to pursue a contested divorce is a major one. The process tends to be lengthy, expensive, and complicated. There are some circumstances where couples have no other choice but to pursue a contested divorce, but there are many alternative options.

Before you decide to move forward with a contested divorce, learn about the process and prepare accordingly.

What Is Custody

What Is a Contested Divorce?

A contested divorce is a divorce in which couples cannot agree on at least one significant issue that arises during their divorce. Most contested divorces involve disagreements on several issues, but it only takes a single disagreement to warrant the involvement of the court.

A contested divorce takes place when a couple files for divorce without a mutually decided marital settlement agreement in place. Each couple will be represented by a lawyer who will work to explain their side of the argument to the judge.

The judge will review evidence and requests from both sides before making a ruling on the issue. Couples must abide by the judge’s ruling at the time of their divorce.

If one party is significantly unhappy with the judge’s decision in a contested divorce, they have the opportunity to file for an appeal at their own financial cost. The judge will review the issue. The ruling may stand or be changed if new evidence alters the judge’s perception of the situation.

What Is an Uncontested Divorce?

An uncontested divorce is a divorce where couples create a marital settlement agreement outside of court. They already agree on major issues like child custody and how their property should be divided.

The couple will file for a divorce, and a judge will review the agreement. If the judge finds that the agreement is reasonable and neither party changes their mind, the couple will be granted a divorce.

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How Much Does a Contested Divorce Cost?

A contested or complicated divorce will often cost more than $15,000 per spouse, with the bulk of the cost coming from attorney fees.

You’ll also need to pay filing fees and court-related costs. You’re responsible for the costs of any other professionals you hire to help you prepare for your divorce. You may be charged for certified copies of documents the court requires you to present.

In addition to costs directly pertaining to your divorce, you might experience other costs as a result of your divorce. If you need to take time off work for divorce-related meetings and hearings or hire a babysitter, you’ll experience the financial impact of lost income or child care.

How Long Does a Contested Divorce Take?

The duration of a contested divorce will depend on the number of disagreements and the schedule of the court. If your local court isn’t overwhelmed and you only have one or two issues to review, your contested divorce can take as little as six months.

If you’re dealing with a busy court and a complex situation, like a significant amount of assets to divide, your contested divorce may take several years to complete.

What Are the Pros and Cons of Contested Divorce?

It’s best to avoid contested divorce when possible, but there may be some situations where pursuing a contested divorce is your only option. You should choose contested divorce when the pros outweigh the cons.

The Pros of Contested Divorce

Uncontested divorce requires both parties to comply voluntarily. If one spouse is acting dishonestly (like hiding assets), their deception may not ever be uncovered. Even worse, they may not face consequences for it if the court hasn’t issued an injunction to prevent them from moving things like money or property.

When you use the contested divorce process, the court can require both parties to produce all relevant financial documents. The court can also prevent them from shuffling things around in an attempt to hide assets in a divorce. If they do, they can be held in contempt of court for disobeying the rules.

You won’t have that kind of power in an uncontested divorce.

Contested divorce can also protect people attempting to divorce a manipulative or abusive person. When the court is involved, it can be difficult for an abuser to pressure someone to agree to things under duress. The court will review all of the evidence and make an equitable ruling based on what’s legally fair.

The Cons of Contested Divorce

A contested divorce can take over a year of your life and more than $15,000 out of your pocket. You may wind up with unmanageable debt as a direct result of a lengthy divorce process. Some people are financially secure enough to contend with the expenses of a contested divorce. If you aren’t, you might want to think twice.

Have an honest conversation with your spouse before you get divorced. The amount of time and money involved in a contested divorce may be enough of an incentive to attempt to work together.

In addition to the important factors of time and money, contested divorce also introduces a lot of stress into your lives and your children’s lives. Any time you hire a lawyer and go to court, you’re headed into battle.

Contested divorce is an intense argument that exposes a lot of private and emotionally intense aspects of your life. It’s very hard to heal from the breakup of your marriage when you’re confronted with constant reminders of the bad parts of your marriage.

If you choose a contested divorce, be sure to take meaningful steps to prioritize self-care and your mental health. Many people seek mental health counseling during or after the divorce process, and it’s especially important to do so when the emotional gravity of your divorce begins to feel overwhelming.

How Do You File for Contested Divorce?

You don’t specifically file for a contested divorce. You’ll file for divorce normally and ask for the things you want, knowing that your spouse is going to disagree with what you’ve proposed in a settlement agreement. They will file a response with the court that contests your proposal.

If you already know you and your spouse aren’t going to agree on the outcome of your divorce, hire a lawyer first. Your lawyer can help you prepare the divorce paperwork and create your ideal marital settlement agreement. The contested divorce process will officially begin after your spouse files their response.

Many states require couples to attend some sort of mediation meeting to attempt to resolve their differences outside of court first. These meetings are sometimes successful. If they are, you’ll be able to create a new marital settlement agreement and file for uncontested divorce.

If they aren’t, the court will set dates for your divorce trial.

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The Contested Divorce Process

Since a contested divorce is generally much more complicated than the alternative, we thought a step-by-step guide would be helpful.

Every contested divorce is unique as the marriage that led up to it, so you’ll want to speak to an actual attorney in order to get the lay of the land for your specific case.

In the meantime, however, you can familiarize yourself with the general trajectory.

Step One: Identify Areas of Disagreement

The first step in your contested divorce occurs before you ever step into a law office, let alone a court. Consider this preparation for your first conversation with a prospective lawyer.

You’ll want to begin by talking to your spouse and identifying what settlement terms you actually disagree about. For instance, perhaps you both want custody and parenting time to be split up 50/50, but your spouse is asking for more spousal support than you would like to pay.

Some of these issues may have been tensions throughout your marriage, but some areas of disagreement may come as a surprise to you.

It is important to have this conversation before you file a divorce complaint/petition (these are synonymous; different jurisdictions use different terms) because you will have an opportunity in the complaint/petition to ask the judge to make temporary provisions that will stay in effect until a divorce settlement is reached.

Step Two: Choose the Right Method of Dispute Resolution for You

You know how we said that about 95% of cases manage to stay out of divorce court?

Well, this is your opportunity to create a path toward avoiding judicial intervention, even if you are experiencing a contested divorce.

You may be relieved to hear that just because you and your ex are experiencing some disagreement doesn’t mean that you can’t cooperate with each other in order to find a mutually agreeable solution.

You might want to talk to your ex about whether they might be open to mediation, for example. Divorce mediation is typically lower-cost than each party hiring a regular old contested divorce lawyer, plus it has the added benefit of generally being a friendlier, more cooperative process.

Collaborative divorce is another great option if you and your spouse are willing to work together but you also would like to each have your own attorney.

This process usually involves a lawyer on each side, one or two mental health specialists (either as a neutral mediator or in support of each party to the divorce), and one or more neutral specialists like a financial expert or a child advocate.

Collaborative divorce can be pricey, but it’s a great amicable option for trickier divorce cases, like those involving a shared business, or those for whom custody of a child with special needs is a key issue.

Finally, even if you and your spouse are not prepared to work so closely together, you might still be able to settle your contested divorce outside of court.

Divorce attorneys are able to negotiate on your behalf, and going to court should be seen as a last resort if they are not able to reach an agreement with considerable time and effort.

Step Three: Obtain a Final Judgment

After you’ve figured out the terms of your divorce in or out of court, you’ll need to obtain a final judgment. This is a document that the court signs off on which formalizes the end of your marriage.

All divorces, contested and uncontested alike, conclude with this final piece of paper. As noted above, you usually do not have to physically go to court to get a judge’s signature, but some jurisdictions require you to make your one and only court appearance at this time.

Step Four: Breathe a Sigh of Relief!

As much as everyone would like to have an easy, breezy uncontested divorce, it isn’t always possible. Contested divorce can be scary, so take a second to congratulate yourself for making it through the process.

Now, on to bigger and better things!

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The Moral of The Story: Avoid Contested Divorce Whenever Possible

There are some circumstances where contested divorce is completely unavoidable, but those circumstances are rare. The court doesn’t want you to pursue a contested divorce unless it’s absolutely necessary.

Before you rush to battle, consider your alternatives and have some important conversations with your spouse.

You’ll likely find that the best choice is for you to resolve your differences outside of court.

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