What is a Divorce? Answers to All Your Questions

First off, what is divorce? You'd think it would be obvious. After all, everyone knows someone who has been or is getting divorced. But it's not.

Although divorce isn't rocket science, it's a confusing process. It's essentially filing a lawsuit, and as we all know, when a lawsuit is filed, you enter the legal system. If you've ever dealt with a bureaucracy before (think: a frustrating encounter with the Department of Motor Vehicles), you know that there's a game and you have to play it (correctly) to get through it.

What is a divorce in legal terms?

Divorce is the dissolving of a legal marriage. You are dissolving the most complicated financial (and emotional) contract of your life. (And if it's not the most complicated, it certainly ranks up there.)

There are two big pieces of divorce: the legal (procedural) process, and the substantive process (issues).

There's an emotional aspect as well, though it's not the subject of this post. For support on the breakup stuff, head to Hello Divorce to peruse our relationships and self-care articles, which are loaded with awesome info to help you move on.

You need to handle the legal stuff – prepare the forms and file and serve them correctly – as well as the substantive stuff – figure out how child support, child custody, property and debt division, and spousal support will be handled.

How do you get divorced?

In the past, divorce choices were limited. You either fumbled with it on your own with the assistance of a DIY book or Google, and maybe you waited in a long line at the self-help resource center at your local court ... or you retained a lawyer to handle it all.


Should I go at it alone?

As we've mentioned, divorce is confusing, and it's a process. There's no easy way through it. No matter what, you must follow the rules. If you've got loads of time and patience and want to handle everything yourself, go for it. Otherwise, no, you shouldn't go at it alone.

Should I hire a lawyer?

Most divorcing people do not need to hire a lawyer. If you've got seriously complex issues or your ex is an impossible narcissist, you might need to retain a lawyer from the start (if you can afford it). But even then, it's important to help guide your case, keep it on track, and take an active role. (a topic for another post).

Where do I turn for help?

You could start with Divorceify. Use their Divorce GPS to get matched with the legal help and resources best suited for your situation.

You may want to consider other options besides lawyering up. (Sometimes, that causes stress and anxiety, which can lead to fear and prompt your spouse to act out. If you start by creating some ground rules around your breakup and deciding which professionals you will both hire to help you through divorce, you'll fare much better.

Divorce Navigator

If you are in California, Colorado, New York, Texas, or Utah (other states coming soon), you can use our Divorce Navigator (think: Turbo Tax for divorce) to handle the legal aspects of your divorce. You could level up to Plus to have a legal assistant walk you and your soon-to-be ex through the entire divorce. And, if you need help with the substantive part of your divorce (negotiating with your ex), you can access a lawyer or mediator in increments as small as 30 minutes. (Request a quote here, or schedule a free 15 minute call.)

You could also consider online mediation with Breaking Free or hire a local mediator (a third-party neutral such as a certified lawyer or mediator or certified divorce financial planner) to help you and your ex come to an agreement on all property, debt, kid stuff, and support issues.

Completing your divorce paperwork

You could work through your divorce forms on your own or with our Divorce Navigator. If you choose, you could hire a limited-scope lawyer to help you along the way with everything from reviewing and revising your forms to appearing at a child support hearing.

If you're short on cash and want to hire a lawyer to represent you for a small piece of your case, give court buddy a call.

How long will divorce take?

You have to get comfortable in the grey. Rushing to an agreement (except in the rare short-term, no-property cases) can backfire on you. There's a lot to consider: everything from budget to schedule to which assets and debts make the most financial sense for you to take.

That said, if you are prepared and your spouse is motivated to work toward an agreement, you can get through your divorce pretty quickly. Just remember, even if you complete your paperwork right away, most states impose a waiting period. In California, it's six months. In Colorado, it's 90 days. Before you're officially divorced, you must go through the required waiting period.

What else?

Lots. But you don't need to know everything at once. You can take your time. Gather good information from good sources like Hello Divorce, Survive Divorce, I've Moved On, Divorce Force, Worthy, and these podcasts:

Then, decide your best course of action. Formulate a strategy, realizing that the strategy might change (and that's okay). Having a strategy in place will empower you to feel more in control.

The bottom line is this: I know from years of experience that you can and will come out of your divorce in one piece – likely in a better place than you ever have been. It takes a lot of self-work. but with the right strategy, support, and some serious self-love, this experience will catapult you into the next stage of your beautiful life.

Founder, CEO & Certified Family Law Specialist
Mediation, Divorce Strategy, Divorce Insights, Legal Insights
After over a decade of experience as a Certified Family Law Specialist, Mediator and law firm owner, Erin was fed up with the inefficient and adversarial “divorce corp” industry and set out to transform how consumers navigate divorce - starting with the legal process. By automating the court bureaucracy and integrating expert support along the way, Hello Divorce levels the playing field between spouses so that they can sort things out fairly and avoid missteps. Her access to justice work has been recognized by the legal industry and beyond, with awards and recognition from the likes of Women Founders Network, TechCrunch, Vice, Forbes, American Bar Association and the Pro Bono Leadership award from Congresswoman Barbara Lee. Erin lives in California with her husband and two children, and is famously terrible at board games.