None of the descriptions or explanations below should be construed as legal advice or expert opinions. All of the descriptions and explanations below may differ depending on your state, local court, and the particular facts of your divorce.
Regardless of the dissolution process, in general, a party seeking divorce should consult an attorney. In French, the word for lawyer is avocat or avocate. In Spanish, the word for lawyer is abogada or abogado. These words are loose cognates for the English word, advocate. An attorney is an advocate for you, your position, and your arguments. The attorney is the person on your side during a marriage dissolution, whether that's through mediation, litigation, collaborative, or other dissolution process.
A financial expert involved in the marriage dissolution process is an objective expert and is an advocate for his or her own opinions, which are based on facts, and not an advocate for the hiring party. This differentiation is critical to communicate at the outset of an engagement. A financial expert is not hired to convince the court of your argument, that's the role of the attorney; a financial expert is hired to assist an attorney in discovery, to explain complex financial issues to the court, and to present an objective opinion about property characterization, property division, asset value, concealment activities, and more that are based on the facts of the case.
Mediation (and a note on objectivity)
Mediation may be required as a part of litigation depending on your state, but a divorce may also be mediated prior to litigation. In this scenario, parties may be in more control over the outcomes of their divorce. Each party is generally represented by an attorney and their negotiations with each other move through a mediator, a neutral third-party. Typically, the two parties are not in the same room together and a mediator, a professional that may be trained in alternative dispute resolution, who may be also be a family court judge or divorce lawyer, or have some other qualifications listens to each party and presents each party's argument to the other room in an attempt to reach a resolution.
The mediator generally has experience with family law matters in the state and does not provide legal advice, that's the role of an attorney hired to represent one party, but can offer insight into what a family court judge might order in the event the matter moves to litigation.
The collaborative process for divorce focuses on reaching a resolution that's agreeable to all parties. It is not a court-assisted process. Each of the professionals engaged in a collaborative divorce agree to not represent the client in litigation; this agreement incentives all involved to reach a resolution. Some states require separate credentials for professionals engaged in the collaborative process for divorce.
The collaborative process is designed for parties who value their own emotional well-being and that of their children, desire a non-adversarial, private environment, maintain a high level of trust in the other party's commitment to full disclosure, and who are willing to consider creative financial solutions to reach a settlement.
Clients are represented by attorneys who have agreed not to represent them in litigation. A team of professionals is assembled to present the best options that consider each party's concerns for the future. This team usually contains a mental health professional and a financial neutral.
It is the role of the financial neutral (the financial expert in a collaborative case) to gather and review financial documents, determine any immediate issues including indications of a lack of disclosure, to brainstorm different financial options with the clients, and to present immediate, mid-term, and long-term financial effects of each option. The financial neutral must consider additional concerns raised by each party and provide alternatives that address those concerns. It is also the role of the financial neutral to ensure that each party understands the financial consequences and risks of different settlement scenarios. In general, a financial neutral should have an understanding of matrimonial litigation in their state as well as experience or qualifications related to financial planning.
Matrimonial dissolution through litigation involves two parties, each with their own attorneys and experts who seek the court's assistance in dissolving their marriage. Often, litigation ends in mediation, where the parties agree to their own terms, facilitated by their attorneys and presented to the court as an agreement. If the court finds nothing terribly wrong or off-balance with the agreement, it will become the final order that governs how both parties interact for the future.
The downside to matrimonial litigation is cost. Both parties pay an attorney and both parties pay financial experts. In high net worth divorce, in divorces involving cryptocurrency, and in cases where one party conceals assets, the litigation process become costly quickly as each party uses the processes of the court (such as different discovery motions, motions to bifurcate, requisite mediation, subpoenas and others) to navigate complex financial issues such as property characterization (whether something is separate property or community property), asset valuation (how much all the things are worth), property division (who gets an ownership interest in what), and more.
This process can feel tedious and somewhat random to someone new to divorce and must be communicated clearly by the attorney and by each expert engaged. There are rules about what to request from the court, when to request it, what the expected outcome is, and how long a party has to respond to the court. The earlier a financial expert is engaged, counterintuitively, the lower costs can be because an experienced financial forensic expert (someone who does finance stuff to be presented in court) knows what to ask for and can assist the attorney in the earliest stages of litigation.
Stages of Litigation
One party files for a dissolution of marriage (a divorce) from another party. The party who files first is generally referred to as the Petitioner while the second party is referred to as the Respondent. Once someone files the petition, papers are served to the responding party; this process is carried out by a process server and is proof to the court that the Respondent has been notified of the proceedings. Sometimes one party may agree with everything in the dissolution; in that case, they sign a document saying so and don't have to respond formally. Otherwise, the responding party files a formal answer with the court within a certain time limit. If no response occurs, the court may grant everything in the initial petition. Dates and deadlines in litigation are important.
Temporary orders govern how each party will interact during the divorce and typically cover things like temporary custody arrangements, temporary spousal support arrangements, use of vehicles or houses, injunctions to make sure one spouse doesn't cancel health insurance or drain retirement accounts, and more. Some states, like California, have automatic temporary restraining orders that prevent parties from messing around with finances or assets after filing for divorce and include repercussions (ATROs violations) if they do. Requests for temporary orders are motions presented to the court that the court hears (a hearing before the judge) and issues a ruling on (orders).
Other Pre-Trial Motions
Pre-trial motions can include a variety of requests to the court. Temporary orders and discovery-related motions are generally two types of pre-trial motions. Other pre-trial motions include a motion to bifurcate - this is a request to the court to divide the different aspects of divorce especially when one aspect is particularly complex. Other requests include asking the court to determine if the marriage was ever actually valid, objecting to a particular judge, asking the court to separate divorce issues from other claims, and asking the court to order that one party pay for the other party's divorce-related fees (attorneys and experts).
Discovery is the court-assisted process of asking for and receiving information from the other party. One side asks for documents (emails, bank statements, account statements, payment history, and more) then, the other side says no in a variety of ways and one side says they can't say no for a variety of reasons - all until one party produces documents, the court orders one party to produce documents, or the court agrees that they can, in fact, say no.
The discovery process contains its own set of requests, motions, answers, and time limits. Some requirements may be waived if domestic violence is an issue in the divorce, but in general, states require parties to produce some amount of information such as material financial information: salary plans, benefit plans, insurance policies, bank account information, investment account information, tax returns, payroll stubs, deed and lien information for property, and more.
Typical requests during discovery are requests for production (documents), interrogatories (written questions and answers), depositions (oral questions and answers recorded by a court-reporter), admissions to facts (written to be answered yes or no), and subpoenas (a court order to appear in court, produce certain documents, or appear with the documents). Discovery requests can also be made of other people or organizations, not just the parties in the divorce.
Mediation and Settlement
The final agreement between parties in a divorce has many names but the purpose is to inform the court that a resolution has happened and can be memorialized by filing with the court. An agreement can happen at any point during the divorce and once signed, is a binding contract to which both parties adhere. Some states require a judge to review the agreement for fairness but, as with any contract, an attorney should review any agreement before you sign it. There are many words in every state that have specific meanings you may not know yourself.
If the agreement is reached by the parties, both parties sign it and it is presented to the court; however, if the parties can't agree, the case goes to trial and a judge or jury will decide for them. Mediation is required in some states (or counties or parishes) prior to trial and may result in a settlement; mediation and settlement negotiations at this point are the final stages where the parties maintain some control over the outcomes.
Each party presents its evidence to the court and each contested issue is decided by the court (a judge or jury). The judge will announce the decisions of the court and pronounce the parties divorced. A final decree detailing how the parties will interact with each other going forward is prepared by one of the attorneys and signed by the judge.
The final decree may not mark the end of the divorce proceedings. There is a brief waiting period before the final decree becomes final, usually about a month. During this time, the court has full discretion to modify any part of the decree. When one party fails to disclose assets to the court, especially due to fraud (an intent to deprive another of value) or duress (threats, violence, constraints, etc. to force an action), the decree may be reopened to divide those assets. Your attorney can file a motion to modify the decree, a motion to reconsider the decree, or a motion to clarify a decree if something in it is ambiguous. If one party isn't following the decree, there are additional motions such as a motion to enforce or a motion for contempt to assist in convincing that party to follow the court's orders.