The divorce process in a nutshell

What is involved in a typical Massachusetts divorce case?

People facing the prospect of a divorce often feel overwhelmed by the mere thought of the process. The idea of lawyers, court appearances, depositions, filing suit or worse still, being served, is intimidating, to say the least. Take it step by step, and you’ll see that the process is really not so difficult to sort out. Although each case involves its own issues, because each individual and each relationship is different, the steps below will give you an idea of what a typical divorce procedure is like in Massachusetts.

1. It makes sense to start by exploring the chances of reaching a settlement with the help of a mediator or through collaborative means. There may also be options short of divorce, such as a temporary separation. Take the time to find a good attorney you can trust and who will help you consider these options.

2. If the couple cannot resolve their issues, the divorce goes to litigation. This means that a request for divorce (the complaint) is filed in court by one of the spouses (the plaintiff).The papers are then served with a summons. This means that a copy of the papers is presented, usually in person, to the other spouse (now called the defendant).

3. The defendant must answer in writing within twenty days time. Once the suit is filed and a response is received, the case enters the pretrial period, which may last several months. However, the parties may decide to reach a mutual settlement at any time during this period, and then the case does not go to trial.

4. During the pretrial or discovery period, each side prepares its arguments and collects all pertinent facts and documents. Each spouse also has the right to review the other spouse’s information. Discovery may include interrogatories (questions which the other side must answer in writing), depositions (oral questioning outside the courtroom) and requests for documents such as financial records.

5. Motions: The attorneys may present requests (motions) to the judge, who may or may not grant them. For example, they may request postponement of a court date or ask for certain information to be provided by the other spouse.

6. If custody is an issue, the court may appoint a Guardian Ad Litem (GAL), in charge of finding the best outcome for the children. The GAL will conduct an investigation that includes interviewing the parents and often the children, and will then issue a recommendation regarding child custody and visitation.

7. Trial: the large majority of cases are settled out of court. If this is not achieved, a trial will take place before a judge (without a jury). Each party presents his or her case and evidence to support it, which may include testimony by witnesses. After hearing all evidence, the judge will study the case and issue a decision, usually several days later.

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