1. It is always a good idea at the outset to start exploring the possibility of settlement with a mediator or some other neutral party. If the parties can agree on the terms of the divorce, a joint petition can be filed which can cut back on a lot of the expense and headaches associated with getting a divorce.
2. If you and your soon-to-be ex-spouse cannot resolve the issues, the divorce will go into litigation. This means that a request for divorce (the complaint) is filed in a Massachusetts court by one of the spouses (the plaintiff). After filing, the papers are then served with a summons upon the other spouse (the defendant) by a sheriff, constable or other process server. In Massachusetts, the complaint can be filed in whichever county either of the parties live. When a party lives out of state, most states provide that they cannot file for a divorce there until they have established residency. This usually means they have to have lived there for at least a year.
3. The defendant must answer the complaint in writing within twenty days. Once the suit is filed, and an answer is received, the case enters the pretrial period, which may last several months. It is important to know, however, that the parties may agree upon mutual settlement at any time during this period, in which case the case does not go to trial.
4. During the pretrial or discovery period, each side prepares its arguments and collects all pertinent facts and documents. Each spouse also has the right to review the other spouse’s information. Discovery may include interrogatories (questions which the other side must answer in writing under oath), depositions (oral questioning outside the courtroom) and requests for documents such as financial records. You can expect to hear from your lawyer if she requires documentation from you, or if there is a scheduled court date. Parties to a divorce are required to attend all court hearings with their legal counsel so make sure you are able to clear your calendar when the time comes.
5. Motions: The attorneys may present requests (motions) to the judge, who may or may not grant them. For example, they may request postponement of a court date or ask for certain information to be provided by the other spouse.
6. If custody is an issue, the court, in its discretion, may appoint a Guardian Ad Litem (GAL), in charge of determining the best outcome for the children. The GAL will conduct an investigation that includes interviewing the parents and often the children, and will then issue a recommendation regarding child custody and visitation.
7. Trial: the large majority of cases are settled out of court. If this is not achieved, a trial will take place before a judge (without a jury). Each party presents his or her case and evidence to support it, which may include testimony by witnesses. After hearing all evidence, the judge will study the case and issue a decision, usually several days later.
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