In Massachusetts, there are two ways by which a party can file for a divorce. The first is commonly known as a “joint petition.” The second is commonly referred to as a “complaint for divorce.”

A “joint petition” is filed when the parties agree on how to resolve all of the issues surrounding their separation. This includes grounds for divorce, division of assets, custody & visitation, health insurance, retirement plans, alimony, child support, etc. The parties will be required to file a petition for divorce, several procedural documents and a settlement agreement that documents how they will resolve each and every issue. After all documents are drafted, negotiated and signed, the parties file the petition with the Court, along with all the corresponding documents, and request that a date be assigned for an uncontested hearing. At that hearing, the parties appear for testimony and review of the case by the Judge.

If there is any conflict between the parties related to the divorce action (ie they cannot agree on division of assets, one party does not want to divorce, etc.), one party can initiate a case by filing a “complaint for divorce.” If there are immediate issues, such as support or custody and visitation, the plaintiff may also choose to file motions at this time. The Court will then issue a summons that the plaintiff must serve to the defendant, along with a copy of the complaint. The defendant then has a certain time period in which s/he must file an answer. From there, the case proceeds to discovery, which is a process by which the parties share information. The parties then have a four way hearing to discuss the issues in the case and explore settlement. If the matter cannot be settled, the parties next attend a pre-trial conference at the Court and prepare for trial. Many times, cases are resolved with the Court’s assistance at these hearings. While this is a very simplified version of the process, it gives you a general idea of how a case proceeds when a complaint for divorce is filed. There are many issues that may arise along the way that may require negotiation, settlement or decision by the Court.

A breakdown of a marriage or a separation of a family is often a devastating experience. There are many things to consider and difficult decisions to be made. Frequently, a party to a divorce action, or a potential divorce action, has questions about the applicable law, the process, the decisions, the cost, support, custody, visitation, Court appearances and the future. In an already emotional situation, you will best be served by an experienced attorney that will take you through the process step by step and give you the guidance and understanding that you need to consider every issue and make informed decisions about your future.