The Divorce Process: Common Questions

Nelson Jones, PLLC, offers full-service family law and divorce solutions to clients throughout Utah. We strive to answer all of your questions so you can make the best decisions for you and your family.

Here are some of the answers to common questions we hear during consultations.

How Do I Initiate The Divorce Process?

In order to start the divorce process one party must file and serve a formal Complaint for Divorce on the other party. Attorneys typically prepare and serve the necessary documents, but if a party does not have an attorney, he or she may prepare the Complaint using the Court's Online Assistance Program and file it in person at the appropriate courthouse.

A party must also serve a summons on the other party. This is an important part of the divorce process because the summons provides notice to the other party that his or her rights may be impacted if an answer is not timely filed. If the other party is served in the State of Utah, he or she will have 21 days to file and serve an answer to the complaint. Service of a summons can be complicated by other factors and is especially difficult if a party moves out of the state or country or tries to avoid service. We have experience with these issues and relationships with private investigators and others who can help ensure you are able to start your case.

What Should I Do if I've Been Served With Divorce Papers?

Once served with a complaint (sometimes called a petition) and summons, the person receiving the papers has a limited time to respond. Typically this is 21 days if the Respondent is served within Utah, or within 30 days if they are served outside of Utah. The Respondent is under an obligation to admit or deny the allegations in the complaint. Filing a timely answer and counter petition is critical because failure to answer constitutes grounds for default, effectively granting all the relief requested in the complaint to the other side. How you answer a complaint or petition for divorce matters because your responses can permanently impact your rights in the rest of the divorce action. You are almost always better off speaking with an attorney prior to responding.

How Long Before a Divorce Becomes Final?

Utah law imposes a 90-day waiting period that must expire before a judge will sign and approve a decree of divorce. The 90-day waiting period begins to run when a complaint for divorce is filed with the court. A party can ask the court to waive the 90-day waiting period; however, the Utah legislature has changed the law to make this more difficult. Most divorces take longer than 90 days to complete, in part because of the court's busy schedule, but also because the time it takes to complete financial disclosure requirements and divorce education classes (if you have children). The parties also need time to gather information and prepare their case for trial in the event they cannot come to terms on a resolution of their disputes. Assuming the parties reach an agreement and all the paperwork is in order at the expiration of the waiting period, the court usually signs off on the paperwork within two weeks.

How is a Divorce Resolved?

As a general rule, divorce cases are resolved in one of three ways: (i) by default, (ii) by agreement of the parties, or (iii) by trial. The method of resolution dictates, in large part, how long it will take before a party's divorce becomes final, and by implication, how much a divorce might cost.

By default: Generally, a court will enter default against a party when he or she fails to respond to a complaint that was properly filed and served. Once the time to respond to the complaint for divorce expires, the party that filed the complaint can ask the court to enter a decree of divorce that mirrors the relief requested in the complaint.

A default judgment can also be used as an efficient method of resolving a case where the parties agree on all issues arising within the divorce action – commonly referred to as an uncontested divorce. Although just an approximation based on our experience, we estimate that less than 15 percent of cases are resolved by of default.

By agreement: In our experience, about 80 percent of divorce cases reach resolution by agreement of the parties. Most often, these agreements are reached through a dispute resolution process called mediation. Mediation involves a neutral third-party who tries to help the parties reach an agreement. Parties typically feel comfortable participating in mediation to resolve their disputes because the mediator has no decision-making authority. In fact, Utah law mandates that the parties attempt to mediate contested issues. If the parties do not voluntarily participate in mediation, the court will require them to so.

If an agreement is reached at mediation, the parties will sign a settlement agreement, which will be used to form the basis for a final decree of divorce. It generally takes between three to seven months for a divorce to become final when the parties reach an agreement through mediation.

If the other side is reasonable and has a reasonable attorney, resolutions can often be reached directly by counsel. If the other side is unreasonable, and/or they have an unreasonable attorney, a resolution will typically be much more difficult to achieve and will come at substantially increased cost. Having an attorney who is experienced in dealing with these types of issues can provide a real benefit because they will be able to help you direct energy and effort into cost-effective means of achieving a resolution.

By trial: If the parties do not reach an agreement through mediation, the case continues and progresses towards trial. An important part of preparing for trial is "discovery," or the process of gathering information and evidence that will be presented to the judge in support of the parties' positions.

Discovery is a time-consuming process that involves submitting written questions to the other party and requesting that the other party provide proof of their claims. It also entails requests or subpoenas to third parties (like a bank or a school) to provide certain documents. It is not uncommon for parties to head down the path of discovery, only to return to mediation a second time once the financial burden of litigation becomes clear. If the matter proceeds to trial the parties should plan on spending a large amount of money for uncertain results. Because trial is an involved and unpredictable process, a competent attorney can greatly improve your odds of success. At the very least, a good attorney can tell you which issues you are likely to win, and equally importantly, which you are likely to lose.

How Much Will My Divorce Cost?

Court costs and fees for a divorce in Utah can vary, but they can include:

  • Fee to file the petition or counter-petition: $310 dollars
  • Required Fee for the Office of Vital Records and Statistics: $17
  • Fees to serve the petition and summons (varies depending on method): Approximately $50
  • Online Court Assistance Program (OCAP) fee (if applicable): $20 and up
  • Copying costs at the Courthouse (if applicable): .25 cents per page
  • Fees for the Divorce education class and the Divorce Orientation class (required if there are minor children and paid in cash at time of attending the courses): $35

Attorney fees vary greatly from case to case and depend on the facts of each case, the complexity of the issues involved, the positions taken by each party, whether there are immediate or emergency actions necessary, and a host of other factors.

  • In 2003 the typical divorce cost both parties a total of $18,000 including lost work productivity, relocation costs, and legal fees (Utah State University Study, "Costly Consequences Of Divorce", 2003).
  • In 1998, the average divorce cost $7,000 in legal fees alone, or $3,500 per spouse. (Hoge, W. L. III., Controlling Legal Costs in a Divorce Action. 1998).
  • In our experience, a trial will cost a client upwards of $5,000 on top of the work it took to get there. This varies greatly depending on the number and complexity of issues to be decided at trial, but the bottom line is that trial (and litigation in general) can become expensive in a hurry. This is why it's so important to have a lawyer who understands your situation and cares about keeping costs under control.

While we cannot make any guarantees as to total cost, we can say that our hourly rates are extremely competitive given the quality of our work and the personal attention we offer our clients. We also take great care to avoid wasting our clients' money by performing unnecessary, redundant, or valueless work. We believe in being efficient and cost-effective, so our clients can recover from the financial impacts of divorce as soon as possible. We also recognize that most people, regardless of their income, do not want to spend money on attorneys. We aren't happy when a client has to spend money with us that would be better spent on starting their new life or for the benefit of their children. Even with our low rates we, on occasion, voluntarily reduce our clients' bills despite the fact that we have no contractual obligation to do so. We know hiring a divorce attorney is expensive and financially difficult for most families. We are invested in our clients' problems and want to genuinely help them as much as possible even if that means reducing their bills on occasion. Our overriding goal is always to deliver the best results we can for the best value.

How Does Payment Work?

By the hour: For most cases, we bill our clients on an hourly basis. We ask our clients to pay a deposit, or down payment, before we begin work on a case. The deposit is placed in our client trust account and withdrawals are made as we earn money by working on the case. If we are able to resolve a case and a client has money remaining in our trust account, we will refund the balance to the client.

We typically ask for an initial deposit large enough to ensure that we can make substantial progress on, or perhaps resolve, the case. Contested or complicated matters can become expensive and if, as a case progresses, a client's trust account balance reaches zero, we ask clients to make another deposit so that we can continue work. Because we need to understand the issues before we can make estimates on costs, we discuss the specifics of fees and deposit amounts with prospective clients during the free initial consultation.

We love to give money back to clients. We're not sure how many other law firms in the state could say that with a straight face. Divorce is expensive, but we understand that when a client has a great experience at a reasonable cost, they're more than likely to send us friends and family who are facing similar trouble.

Flat fee: Some cases lend themselves to speedy or simple resolution, usually where a client has a specific objective. Where appropriate, we can offer a flat fee arrangement so that a client can pay for our services up-front. Please note that because of the unpredictable nature of certain cases, a flat fee may not be available. We discuss available payment arrangements with prospective clients during the initial consultation.

Payment plan: Legal services are, unfortunately, expensive. Some cases can become very costly indeed. We can offer payment plans in certain cases to help make our services more affordable for clients. We discuss available payment arrangements with prospective clients during the initial consultation.