Divorce can be a relatively straightforward process if you and your spouse are on good terms and can agree on certain issues in your case. In such a situation, you can file for an uncontested divorce which is often a quicker and less expensive process than contested divorces.
Uncontested divorces allow both parties to retain more control over decisions made during the divorce instead of having a judge make those decisions. Receiving help from a family law attorney is still advised, as a family law attorney can guide you through the still complicated process of an uncontested divorce. If you are considering filing for an uncontested divorce but are unsure if it is the best choice for you, read on.
Historically, couples could not simply decide they wanted to divorce. The laws provided that there had to be a valid reason for the state to grant a couple a divorce. Specifically, in the 19th century, the Married Woman’s Property Act established a legal precedent for some women to be able to sue for divorce. Until the latter part of the 20th century, divorce was considered against the public interest, so anyone who wanted a divorce had to sue to obtain one.
Fault had to be shown during a divorce (adultery, mental illness, cruelty, or abandonment, for example), or else a divorce would not be granted. This created a black market industry of deception and fraud to get around these laws (i.e., establishing residency in Nevada for six months to easily get divorced, attorneys in New York providing prostitutes and photographers to clients to prove adultery to qualify for a divorce, and going to Mexico or Haiti to get divorced). As a result, in 1969, California was the first state to establish no-fault divorce.
One spouse could prevent a divorce from going through by “contesting” it. Some states in the U.S. still have such laws, but as of 1973, Washington state has allowed couples to divorce merely by showing the marriage is “irretrievably broken,” which means that couples only need to represent to the court that the marriage is no longer working and cannot be repaired.
It is not necessary to establish a reason why the marriage fell apart or affix blame. Thus, in Washington state, “uncontested” no longer means that one spouse agrees that the other spouse may have a divorce. Neither spouse is the defendant in the divorce. Instead, it refers to whether there are any issues in dispute. As long as there is even one issue on which the divorcing couple is not in agreement, the case is considered a “contested divorce.”
You do not need to file for separation before filing for divorce, though there may be reasons for choosing to do so. When filing for an uncontested divorce, you and your spouse must come to an agreement on the following issues:
- If applicable, child support payments, including what other child-related expenses will be shared, and whether and how post-secondary education will be an expense shared by the parents.
- If applicable, spousal support, including how much each month and for how long.
- If applicable, parenting time, how decision-making will be handled with the children, and which parent will be identified as the “custodial parent” for federal or other state purposes.
- Division of all marital and separate debts.
- Division of all marital and separate assets, irrespective of the spouse’s name on the title.
- Any other outstanding issue the spouses want to address in the divorce.
The minimum amount of time that an uncontested divorce takes in Washington state is 90 days. Compared with contested divorces, which can take twelve months or longer, uncontested divorces tend to move much faster.
An uncontested divorce in Washington state can cost under $1000, not including court filing fees. If services such as mediation are needed, there may be additional costs. Where a divorce is contested, the average cost of divorce can range in the thousands and upward.
To file for an uncontested divorce in Washington state, you must first file a Petition for Dissolution of Marriage. In an uncontested divorce, you can do this together by having your spouse sign a joinder to your petition. The required forms include the following:
- Petition for Dissolution of Marriage
- Confidential Information Form
- Acceptance of Service or Proof of Service
- Certificate of Dissolution
- Agreement to Join Petition (Joinder)
- Findings of Facts and Conclusions of Law
- Decree of Dissolution
- Parenting Plan (if you have children)
- Child Support Order and Worksheets (if you have children)
Next, the forms should be filed in your or your spouse’s county of residence. Some couples opt to file in Lincoln County, given it is the only county in Washington state that does not require parents to attend a parenting class. That said, many couples would likely benefit from the required parenting classes mandated by the other counties in Washington state.
Washington state is a community property state. Of the few states in the U.S. that observe community property concepts, the rules on how community property is to be divided vary even among those states. In Washington, as a general rule, spouses own an equal and full interest in any property acquired during the marriage, even where only one spouse’s name is on the bank account, paycheck, or title. This essentially means that if a house is owned as community property by a couple, they both own 100% of it (not 50% each) until the court divides the assets and debts. This distinction can have a significant impact on the division of assets and debts in a divorce.
Generally, community property refers to everything that is acquired by either party during the course of a marriage. The key here is the use of “generally,” as certain exceptions apply, perhaps most commonly in the cases of gifts or inheritances that are transferred to one spouse from somebody else during the marriage.
Community property can include real estate, tangible assets, both spouses’ earnings, interest earned on investments, capital gains, and retirement benefits. This also means that debts either spouse accumulates during the marriage will generally be considered community debts to the court. Spouses share responsibility for community debts unless a court order or enforceable agreement determines otherwise.
Separate property can include funds, real estate, and investments a spouse acquires before the marriage or after separation, as well as gifts, inheritances, and heirlooms regardless of when acquired. If separate property becomes commingled with community property such that the two are no longer distinguishable, a spouse can lose the right to have it treated as separate property in the property division.
Apart from the definitions of community and separate property, it is important to note that the court examines every case individually and will divide assets and debts according to what a judge determines to be just and equitable. Equitable means fair, not a 50-50 split. The court considers “all relevant factors,” which by law include at a minimum the nature and extent of community property, the nature and extent of separate property, the length of the marriage, and each spouse’s financial standing.
Additional factors can also be taken into account when dividing assets, such as what each partner’s primary role has been historically in a marriage. If one parent acted as the children’s primary caregiver while the other was the primary earner, a judge would likely recognize the reasoning behind this discrepancy and make its decision with that in mind. The respective age and health of the spouses may also be a consideration.
The separate property held by each party is always taken into account by the judge when making a determination of how things should be divided. If one spouse has a large number of assets separately that the court intends to award to them, it could mean that the other partner would receive more of the community assets in a divorce. It is important to understand that in Washington, all property is considered “before the court” for division. The court commonly awards separate property to the spouse with whom it is associated but has the authority to award it to either spouse in order to make an overall just division.
In an uncontested divorce, a judge will still need to approve your divorce settlement agreement and find that it is both fair and equitable. This takes a minimum of 90 days.
For those who qualify for an uncontested divorce, there may be several benefits, the most obvious of which is the expense; an uncontested divorce can be less costly than a contested divorce. An uncontested divorce can be quicker than a contested divorce due to the absence of any disputed issues.
Choosing an uncontested divorce can thus set the stage for continued amicable relations during the divorce process. If no disputes arise during an uncontested divorce, there usually will be no need for court hearings. This provides more privacy for spouses who wish to keep their personal matters private, away from the oversight of a judge and the prying eyes of the public.
An uncontested divorce does not automatically equate to an easy divorce. It can become difficult if your spouse decides they will no longer cooperate. It can also result in one spouse having an unequal advantage over the other because one spouse may give up rights or assets they do not intend to or even know about. This is especially true in situations where there is domestic violence or an imbalance of power in the marriage.
An uncontested divorce is particularly difficult when the custody and child support of minors are involved or there are a lot of assets and debts to divide. If issues arise during an uncontested divorce, even one issue, turning it into a contested one, it is possible to have missed important deadlines or reserved certain rights. Finally, an uncontested divorce, which may seem simple at the outset, can become complicated when you are not familiar with Washington state laws.
The person who files for divorce first is known as the petitioner (they petition the court for the divorce). The other spouse is the respondent (they respond to the petition for divorce). Filing solely for an uncontested divorce is common, even when the other spouse agrees on the terms of the divorce.
The steps for filing as a sole petitioner can take a substantial amount of time. The steps include:
- Confirming jurisdiction and venue.
- Filing a Petition for Dissolution of Marriage.
- Serving the summons.
- Negotiating the terms of the settlement.
- Attending mediation.
- Coming to an agreement and then memorializing it in writing (divorce settlement agreement).
If you are filing jointly, one spouse will still need to be the petitioner, and the other will be the respondent. The difference in the paperwork will be that you will fill out the joinder section of the petition. As stated earlier, the court will require a minimum of 90 days to finalize the divorce.
After the waiting period, you will file for the dissolution of your marriage, and a judge will review the documents. After they are approved, the divorce is finalized.
Joint petitions are recommended only if the divorces are uncomplicated and can be described according to the following criteria:
- You have been married between one and three years.
- You have no children under the age of 18 together.
- Neither of you is pregnant.
- You have no adult children together who depend on either of you.
- No one is requesting spousal maintenance.
- You have under $15,000 in debt.
- You have under $30,000 in personal property.
You can prepare and file the paperwork for your uncontested divorce online, but the fees paid to the online service are separate from those of the court filing fees. But, again, seeking an online divorce, even when using a service to assist, is usually unwise due to the level of self-representation involved.
Even when getting an uncontested divorce, the proceedings can quickly become complicated, and attorneys can assist you with the following:
- Recognizing important issues.
- Preparing court documents and filing them on time.
- Reducing conflict between parties.
- Taking the stress out of the divorce process.
An uncontested divorce, as simple as it may sound, should not be an excuse to go through the divorce process without skilled and experienced legal counsel to support you. While this may sound possible, even smart, and an easier, quicker, and less costly way to get through the divorce process, representing yourself in your divorce is unwise.
At Elise Buie Family Law, our team of Seattle family law attorneys has decades of cumulative experience guiding clients through uncontested divorces. We recognize how every divorce case is as unique as the individuals divorcing and give every client and their family the attention they want and deserve. Call our office today.