A Complete Guide to Contested Divorce in Washington
- What does a contested divorce mean in Washington?
- Who should file for contested divorce?
- When to avoid contesting a divorce
- How long a contested divorce takes
- How much it costs
- How to file
In a contested divorce, spouses disagree on one or all parts of their split. Notably, Washington’s divorce laws don’t allow one person to stop a divorce from happening. It’s important to understand this: One person contesting the details of a divorce doesn’t mean the two of you stay married.
However, disagreeing on aspects of your marital settlement and divorce can make ending your marriage more complicated. Often, it makes divorce more expensive, stressful, and time-consuming.
What does a contested divorce mean in Washington?
Washington is a no-fault state, meaning people don’t have to disclose why they want a divorce. One person starts the process by saying the marriage is broken and can’t be fixed. The other person can’t halt the process, even if they think the union can be saved. If you want to divorce, your partner can’t stop you in Washington state.
A contested divorce in Washington involves disagreeing parties. Specifically, they disagree on one or more aspects of their marital settlement, such as spousal support, property division, or child custody. But the fact that they can’t collaborate does not mean their divorce case won’t move forward.
For example, both sides may agree that it’s time to divorce, and they may begin the process together. But then one person might snag on an issue (like child support), and the two of them can’t resolve it. At this point, the divorce becomes contested. Sometimes, a judge must settle the matter, either with a settlement conference or a court case.
Who should file for a contested divorce?
It’s important to understand that no one files for a contested divorce in Washington. The filing process is the same whether you agree with your spouse or not. Sometimes, people start this process with the understanding that they won’t collaborate with their spouse.
A contested divorce could be a good option for the following reasons:
Washington is a community property state, meaning items purchased during the marriage belong to both parties equally. In divorce, judges attempt to divide these assets as equally as possible.
If you own several properties, including some that came through an estate or a will, untangling the issues can be difficult. Disagreements become more likely with complicated estates, making contested divorce more likely as well.
Washington allows for spousal support payments to help both parties achieve financial health after the split. One person may believe these payments are required. The other may disagree. These fights can lead to a contested divorce.
Parents have plenty to decide during a divorce, and those decisions can be difficult and heart-wrenching. Some parents can’t bear the thought of sharing their kids over the holidays with their exes. Others don’t agree with the child support amount suggested. If parents can’t settle these issues, a judge may need to step in.
More than 99% of Washington businesses are considered small businesses. Whether you share an enterprise in name only or you work closely every day, you’ll need to split this asset in a divorce. The conversations around this can be difficult, and sometimes, they lead to a contested divorce.
Divorces can stem from issues like verbal abuse, physical assaults, lying, and adultery. Emotional scars can run deep and impede calm, clear collaboration. Sometimes, one party is simply too damaged to negotiate fairly with the other. If both parties can’t come to a resolution together, the divorce becomes contested.
When to avoid contesting a divorce
Just as a contested divorce is right for some people, it’s wrong for others. In fact, refusing to work with your spouse can be very damaging for some families.
A contested divorce could be the wrong choice due to the following reasons:
- Long time frames: A contested divorce often takes longer than an uncontested one. If you need to move the process along as quickly, arguing won’t bolster the speed; in fact, it will slow things down. Aim to find common ground to expedite things.
- High cost: Many contested divorces require lawyers. In Washington, these professionals charge between $100 and $300 per hour. The more arguments you have, the longer (and more expensive) the divorce will be.
- Less control: Washington courts have a lot of discretion in deciding issues like spousal support and estate splits. If you collaborate, you may be more likely to get what you want. In court, you may be at the mercy of the judge, and you may lose some items that are very important to you.
- Potential trauma: Fighting with your spouse can take its toll on you. Entering a courtroom can worsen feelings of helplessness, and you may feel overwhelmed by all the steps. Sitting in negotiating meetings may not be fun, but it could be less harmful to your mental health.
- Prior arrangements: Washington courts can throw out prenuptial agreements if they’re not carefully written. But people who try to fight a solid prenup could waste time and money doing so.
How long does a contested divorce take in Washington?
Everyone who wants a divorce in Washington must wait 90 days between filing paperwork and getting a decree. Contested divorces often take longer than uncontested divorces due to issues such as the following:
Many people start their divorce with conversations, progress to mediation if they can’t find common ground, and perhaps try arbitration to settle issues. Each of these steps takes time.
A contested divorce often requires a trial. In some Washington counties, there’s a backlog of cases. You may need to wait until a judge’s time is available.
Your lawyer may need to assess your property, gather information, interview witnesses, and otherwise ensure that you’re prepared for the judge.
With a court date, you must take time away from work and attend the hearing. If you have several issues to discuss, you may be detained for a long time.
How much does a contested divorce cost?
Even if you agree with every single thing your partner wants, your Washington divorce won’t be free. Everyone must pay a filing fee, which varies per county. You may also have costs associated with serving papers and making copies. A contested divorce can cost much more.
A contested divorce typically involves fees for the following services:
- Mediation or arbitration
- Home appraisers
- QDROs (if you’re splitting retirement accounts)
- Court experts (like doctors or therapists) who are willing to testify
- Court reporters
In general, participating in a contested divorce will be much more expensive than working with your spouse on a fair agreement you can both tolerate.
What are the requirements for a contested divorce in Washington?
To finalize your divorce, you must make decisions about your estate. You’re required to either settle these issues independently or ask the judge to do so for you.
The issues you must decide include the following:
- Child custody: Which parent will have the children the majority of the time? What does that division of time look like? Can the other parent make medical or legal decisions, or can only the live-in parent do that?
- Child visitation: When will children see the non-custodial parent? Who will host holidays, weekends, and school breaks?
- Child support: How much will the non-custodial parent pay the other parent each month to keep the children housed and fed? Who will pay for medical insurance? What about life insurance? Who pays for extracurricular activities and other expenses?
- Debts: What loans should be shared between both people and what balances belong to just one person?
- Assets: Who will keep the family home, car, retirement account balances, and other valuable items?
Any one of these requirements could be complex enough to turn a seemingly amicable divorce into a contested one.
How to file for a contested divorce in Washington
The filing process you’ll use for a contested divorce is almost identical to the one you’d use for uncontested divorce. Major differences occur at the end when you’re about to get a final agreement from the judge.
A typical Washington divorce requires the following steps:
Step 1: Ensure residency, and find your court
You must live in Washington state to file for divorce, and you must use the court within your county. Find the right court, and contact the officials there. Washington allows officials in every county to craft region-specific forms. Find out exactly what’s required before you get started.
Step 2: Fill out divorce paperwork
One person (the petitioner) must fill out two important documents: Petition for Divorce (Dissolution) and Summons: Notice about a Marriage or Domestic Partnership. These documents start the divorce case. You’re not required to specify whether the divorce is contested or not.
Watch: Complete Guide to Filing a Divorce Petition in Washington | Form FL-Divorce 201 Explained
Step 3: File divorce paperwork
The petitioner pays to start the case. Most courts charge at least $300 for this step. You can’t split it with your spouse, as you must pay it when the documents are filed. When this step is complete, the clerk will give you official copies of the documents that you’ll need for the next step.
Step 4: Serve your spouse
You started the case as a petitioner. Your spouse is the respondent. To make this possible, you must notify that person that the case is happening, and the court requires proof that you notified them.
Find someone unaffiliated with the case, such as a process server. Give that person your official documents along with a Proof of Personal Service form. When that step is complete, your spouse will fill out the form and give it back to the courthouse. Your spouse has 60 days to respond.
Step 5: Provide financial information
Washington courts require people to share detailed paperwork about assets and debts. Fill out the Financial Declaration and Sealed Financial Source Documents (Cover Sheet) forms. Bring them to the courthouse to file them.
Collect and make copies of proof like tax returns, pay stubs, and corporate tax returns. Bundle your declaration and supporting evidence into an envelope, and mail it to your spouse. Then, fill out a Proof of Mailing or Hand Delivery form to prove you’ve completed this step.
Step 6: Negotiate
Look at the Findings and Conclusions about a Marriage form. If you share children, examine these documents too: Child Support Order, Parenting Plan, Residential Time Summary Report, and Child Support Worksheets. Every item on these forms must be filled out. If you choose, you could work through them via mediation or arbitration. This is a helpful step that can transform some divorce cases from contested to uncontested.
Step 7: Go to court
If you can collaborate with your spouse and make your divorce case uncontested, fill out all of your documents and attend a hearing for a judge’s approval. If you can’t agree, your divorce is contested, and you will likely go to court for a divorce trial.
No matter whether you use a hearing or a trial, your judge will provide a Decree of Dissolution of Marriage that’s signed and official. Sometimes, you’ll be asked to take these documents to the clerk’s office to file them.
Every divorce is a little different. For example, you may be asked to attend a settlement conference instead of a hearing. A judge will manage this appointment and help you understand what should happen next. And sometimes, judges ask for additional forms not listed here.
What to expect at a contested divorce hearing
All issues must be settled to finish your divorce case. As we’ve mentioned, if you come to an agreement, your case won’t go to trial. But if you don’t come to a complete agreement (even with the help of mediation), you must attend a trial in a Washington courtroom.
What to bring to the hearing
You must bring four copies of any order you’re proposing to your hearing, such as the following:
You may also need to provide financial backup, such as your W2 forms and tax returns. Your lawyer should help you understand what you must offer as evidence.
Listen to the judge and your lawyer. Don’t interrupt, even if you want to do so. Be polite, professional, and careful. Know that this is the last step that will end your marriage, and do your part to help it move as quickly as possible.
Hello Divorce helps couples with both uncontested and contested divorces. If you’re facing a contested divorce in Washington and want to try working with a mediator, click here to learn about our certified mediators, or schedule a free 15-minute call here to ask questions and learn more about it.
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Divorce and Other Options for Ending Your Marriage without Children in Washington State. (June 2022). Northwest Justice Project.
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Average Attorney Fees by State 2023. World Population Review.
10 Tips to Prepare for High Conflict Divorce Court. (May 2023). Psychology Today.
Dissolution: What You Should Know. (2011). Washington State Bar Association.
Getting Ready for a Settlement Conference. (January 2022). Northwest Justice Project.
Getting Ready for a Court Hearing or Trial. (December 2021). Northwest Justice Project.