Divorce Trial: What to Expect and How to Prepare
- What is a divorce trial?
- Key facts about divorce trials
- Why do couples go to court?
- How to prepare
- Requirements before trial starts
- What to expect at your divorce trial
- What happens after the trial?
- Divorce trial FAQs
You're not required to go to court to end your marriage. Many couples settle their issues outside the courtroom, saving both time and money. But if you can't agree, you must settle differences in a divorce trial.
Your lawyer will help you with each step of the divorce trial process, and you'll pay for that help. Here's what you need to know about how trials work and what you'll do to prepare for your day in court:
What is a divorce trial?
During a divorce trial, a couple’s issues are examined and decided by a judge. Both sides are represented by lawyers, and they spend months preparing evidence, statements, and positions.
Some couples find common ground as they prepare for trial, and they settle key terms without ever entering the courtroom. But others can’t agree, and they go to court and allow the judge to decide the terms of the split.
At the end of a divorce trial, a judge makes final rulings about the split. Couples can appeal those decisions, but most choose to alter their agreements later through documents filed with the court.
In general, a trial is the most expensive way to end your marriage. Lawyers charge by the hour, and they need a lot of time to guide you through the process. But when all other methods fail, this is the best way to ensure your marriage is truly and legally over.
Key facts about divorce trials
Here are some key stats on divorce trials:
- More than 20% of first marriages end in divorce within the first five years.
- More than 90% of divorce cases settle before ever going to trial. Couples find agreement through mediation or settlements.
- Most divorces are complete within about a year, but cases that go to court can take 18 months or longer.
- The average court-based divorce costs $12,900, and the bulk of those fees are paid to lawyers.
Why do couples go to court?
No one wants to spend more money or time than they must on something unpleasant like a divorce. But sometimes, there is truly no other option.
Some couples face difficult divorces due to the following:
- Plenty of conflict
- Inability to negotiate or agree
- History of abuse
- Complex estates, including retirement accounts
There’s no shame in heading to court to end your marriage. If you can’t resolve your issues in any other way, this could be the best option that leads to a single life.
How to prepare for a successful divorce trial
Your lawyer will help guide you through the process. This person is on your side, fighting just for you and your future. The best thing you can do as you prepare for your trial is to listen to your lawyer.
These additional tips can help you prepare:
- Stay organized. You'll create plenty of paperwork as you move toward divorce. A filing system can help you keep all the documents in place.
- Limit contact with your spouse. Don't try to cut deals behind your lawyer's back. If your spouse reaches out, ask your lawyer what to do next.
- Focus on your goals. Your lawyer must understand what you want to fight for in court. Think about your future and how you'd like each question answered.
- Remain available. Keep your appointments with your lawyer, and answer questions promptly. This process should be a priority for you.
Know that preparation can take time and energy. Take care of your physical and mental health. Focus on eating right, exercising regularly, and sleeping well.
What must be finished before the trial starts?
Preparing for trial is a lengthy process, and you have a lot of work to do. Don't be intimidated by your to-do list. Just remember to take one step at a time.
When your trial starts, these steps should be complete:
- File for divorce. You can't schedule a trial until you've started the divorce process.
- Share financial documents. Both parties must complete paperwork about what they owe and what they own.
- Complete depositions. Both parties must answer a formal set of questions in front of court officials. The transcripts are part of your legal case, and they're shared with the other party.
- Contact experts. Some questions are easier to answer with the help of an outsider. Hiring an accountant, therapist, or auditor could help you make a great case for the court.
- Rehearse. You must speak in front of the court as part of your divorce trial, so it's best to determine what you will say and how you'll say it. Practice a few times, so you’ll feel more comfortable when nerves set in.
Your lawyer may also suggest mediation or settlement agreements at this stage. Participating in these discussions could help you avoid a trial.
What to expect at your divorce trial
Every case is a little different, but most move through a predictable series of steps. Understanding what they are can help you feel more comfortable when the big day arrives.
Your trial will typically work like this:
- Opening statements: Both sides outline what they want from the divorce process in general terms. These summary speeches can set the tone for the entire day and help the judge understand how the case might move forward.
- Witness exams: The person who filed for divorce (the petitioner) typically presents first. That person and their witnesses take the stand and discuss the case. The opposing party can ask follow-up questions.
- Closing statements: Both sides summarize the divorce cases they presented and ask the judge to rule in their favor.
- Ruling: When both parties have summed up their positions, the judge makes a final ruling and documents that clearly.
Each of these steps takes time, and it’s not uncommon for divorce cases to last for several days. During that time, you should remain quiet and composed. Let your lawyer speak for you, and stay professional and calm the entire time.
What happens after the trial?
When the case is concluded, you'll have formal paperwork that ends your marriage. You must sign those documents, as should your partner. When those documents are signed, stamped, and filed, your marriage is officially over.
Have Questions About Divorce? Don't Know Where to Start?
Divorce trial FAQ
How long after the trial is my divorce final?
Your case is complete when the judge makes a final ruling and issues paperwork. Unless the other side files an immediate appeal, your divorce is final the same day.
How much does a divorce trial cost?
Divorce trials can cost more than $12,000, and most of the cost involves lawyers. This is one of the most expensive ways to end a marriage.
Are divorce trials open to the public?
Most divorce trials are public, so people can come into the courtroom and watch the proceedings. You can use this aspect to your advantage. Visit a divorce trial before your case starts, and watch one for yourself. You'll be more prepared for your case.
Do all divorces go to trial?
No, most cases never go to court for resolution. Most couples settle their differences through mediation or direct negotiation.
Healthy Divorce: How to Make Your Split as Smooth as Possible. (2013). American Psychological Association.
What Types of Divorces Typically Do to Trial? (March 2016). Lawyers.com.
How the Divorce Process Works. (May 2022). Investopedia.