Legal Divorce – Beginning the Journey
Dissolution of Marriage. A marriage is ended in Connecticut when a Superior Court issues a judgment dissolving the marriage. Dissolution of marriage is commonly referred to by the non-legal term “divorce”.
Legal separation is a legal status in which the spouses are free from the obligations for and have given up the rights spouses typically have regarding each other. Legally separated persons are neither single nor married.
There are numerous grounds for dissolving a marriage, the most common of which is because “the marriage has broken down irretrievably”. Frequently referred to as “no-fault” divorce, in 1973 our Connecticut legislature eliminated the need to prove fault, such as adultery or intolerable cruelty, in order to become divorced.
The concept of fault is still built into our law. In Adversarial Divorce,
judges are permitted to consider “the cause for the … dissolution of marriage…”, thus fault of the respective spouses, when crafting financial orders. However, unless “fault” has been substantial or gross, it usually plays an insignificant role or no role at all in the financial or parenting orders rendered by a judge. Judges often quickly tire of evidence of fault which is neither significant or gross nor responsible for the breakdown of the marriage.
Divorce and most other family matters take place in the Connecticut Superior Court. There are numerous Superior Courts throughout the state. The Superior Courts are not organized by county or town but by Judicial Districts. Click on “Judicial Districts” if you want to view the Judicial Districts I typically handle as well as which towns are in each of these judicial districts
Although the same Connecticut laws apply to all dissolution cases brought here, court practices, meaning the way in which the court is run, can differ from judicial district to judicial district.
A divorce case must be brought in the judicial district in which either the husband or wife resides.
Plaintiff and Defendant.
The person instituting the legal divorce case is the “plaintiff”. The other spouse is called the “defendant”. Typically, the court makes no assumptions based upon whether a spouse is the plaintiff or defendant. However, spouses often have strong feelings about whether they prefer to be plaintiff or defendant. Making this decision is therefore usually discussed by and negotiated between both spouses early in mediated and collaborative divorces.
Summons and Complaint
. The legal divorce case starts through a “summons and complaint”, sometimes called “the divorce papers” or the “writ”, setting forth facts concerning the marriage and generally what the plaintiff wants the court to order.
The complaint will include a “Return Date”. The return date, which is always a Tuesday and typically three weeks after the papers are served, is not a date upon which the spouses must appear in court. Instead, the return date is the date from which the ninety day waiting period and other relevant events start.
. Attached to the complaint are the “Automatic Orders”. These court orders are effective on the plaintiff when the complaint is signed and apply to the defendant upon service of the complaint. (Copies of the summons, complaint and automatic order forms, as well as most other standard divorce forms, can be found on the State of Connecticut Judicial Department web site at
Service and Waiver of Service. In adversarial divorce, the complaint is given to a marshal, who in turn delivers or serves a copy on the defendant, often surprising or embarrassing the defendant spouse at work or home. In contrast, in most mediation and collaborative cases, the spouses avoid the cost, inconvenience, and embarrassment of a marshal and rely upon what is called a Waiver of Service form signed by the defendant in lieu of the marshal serving papers.
After service, the summons and complaint are sent to the court, a file is opened and the case becomes a public record. (The Judicial Department web site, www.jud.ct.gov/
shows the status and history of all pending and some past divorce cases.)
The defendant need not physically appear in court upon the commencement of the case. However, the defendant, or his attorney if the case is adversarial, should file an “appearance” form. This notifies the court that the defendant is “appearing” in the case as well as provides the name and contact information for the person appearing.
Pro Se or Self Represented
party, whether plaintiff or defendant, is a person representing themselves in the court case. Spouses participating in mediated or collaborative divorces are self represented, at least initially.
Answer and Cross Complaint.
The defendant is entitled, but not required, to respond in writing to the plaintiff’s complaint, in a document called an answer, and file their own papers asking for a divorce and other relief, called a cross complaint.
The Middle - While in Negotiation
The earliest a couple can become divorced is 90 days after the Return Date. However, often, especially in adversarial cases, the middle of the divorce case lasts months or years.
Pendente Lite Period.
This is the legal name for the middle of the divorce case – the period between the start of the legal divorce and the date the marriage is dissolved.
Spouses engaging in mediation or collaborative divorce typically address pendente lite issues, such as a temporary parenting plan or housing arrangement and interim alimony or child support payments, in early meetings without going to court. Mediated and collaborative cases will focus on fact gathering, identifying interests, creating options and negotiation during the pendente period.
Adversarial Divorces Only.
Litigating spouses can file motions with the court seeking court intervention and orders. Obtaining pendente lite orders from a court however, often involves time consuming and expensive hearings, repeated court appearances and waiting weeks or months for court time or orders after the hearing is concluded. I often advise potentials clients considering litigation rather than mediation or collaboration, to spend a half day in their local courthouse observing first- hand what family court litigation is like.
Parenting Education Program
. All divorcing parents must complete a six-hour parenting education class
offered by various organizations throughout Connecticut.
is fact gathering. It is the process of obtaining information and documents relating to the divorce from each spouse as well as non-parties such as banks, employers, customers, paramours, teachers and pediatricians. Generally, successful settlement negotiations cannot take place without or until appropriate discovery is complete. Click here to read more information about Divorce Discovery
In mediated and collaborative divorces, discovery is voluntary, open and tailored to the needs of the particular case.
Adversarial Divorces Only
. Discovery is typically accomplished through the use of subpoenas, depositions, interrogatories and mandatory exchanges of information. Discovery can be a source of harassment, abuse, misrepresentation and fraud in litigated divorces.
Case Management Date.
The Case Management Date, approximately ninety days after the Return Date, is not a date upon which the parties must appear in court unless they are disputing custody of their children. Instead, it is a date by which they must file a Case Management Agreement with the court, which is a form notifying the court about the status of the case and scheduling plans. It is often also the earliest date by which spouses can proceed with an uncontested final hearing and obtain their divorce. Frequently, mediated and collaborative divorces are settled and ready for an uncontested final hearing by the Case Management Date.
At various times during the divorce, both spouses must exchange and file with the court their sworn financial affidavit. A financial affidavit is a statement showing each spouse’s income and expenses on a weekly basis, their assets and liabilities. The affidavit must be notarized or acknowledged, making it the spouse’s sworn statement. Since a court puts great weight on the financial affidavit and misrepresentation or omission on an affidavit may constitute fraud or perjury, it is imperative for the financial affidavit to be accurate and complete. Copies of the financial affidavit form are available on the judicial web site
Adversarial Divorces Only. Adversarial divorce cases often rely heavily on the involvement of various types of experts. Generally, these experts will align with one spouse against the other. Experts can be hired by the spouses or appointed by the court. Experts may give their opinions to the court on a variety of topics including which parent is better equipped to parent and how much a business is worth.
Adversarial Divorces Only. Judges have limited time to become involved in or hold divorce trials. The State of Connecticut therefore requires litigants unable to resolve their own disputes to participate in various types of pretrials.
A Pretrial may be conducted by a family relations officer, a special master or a judge. A Family Relations Officer is a state employee whose duties include conducting pretrials. A Special Master is usually an experienced divorce lawyer who volunteers to conduct a pretrial without charge.
Pretrial practices differ from judicial district to judicial district and depending upon the identity of the person pretrying the case. Typically though, the lawyer for each litigating spouse summarizes his client’s story to the person pretrying the case. The pretrier then makes a settlement recommendation based in large part what he thinks the result might be after a trial. More often than not, the divorcing spouses are prohibited from attending or participating in the pretrial. However, whether or not attending, the spouse’s presence at the courthouse is required.
While some pretrials are productive, many fail to result in settlement, escalate hostilities between the spouses and generate significant legal fees. The recommendations made by the special masters, family relations officer or even the judge at the pretrial are not court orders, and therefore are not binding on either of the spouses and do not become a part of the court file.
The End - Finalizing One Journey and Beginning the Next
Timing. Even when the spouses have signed a settlement agreement, a judgment of dissolution cannot be entered until 90 days after the Return Date. Mediated and collaborative divorces are frequently ready to go to judgment upon the expiration of this mandatory waiting period. Litigated cases may take months or years to go to judgment, whether ultimately settled or tried.
Spouses in the mediation and collaborative processes sometimes choose to delay the entry of judgment although their case has settled and the waiting period has expired to take advantage of preferable tax filing status or extended health insurance coverage, obtain social security benefits or proceed at a time that is best for their child.
Divorce Settlement Agreement, Marital Settlement Agreement, Separation Agreement. These are labels sometimes used to identify the written document containing the divorcing couple’s final agreements about parenting and financial items.
The Judgment. The judgment is the court order which terminates or dissolves the marriage. In mediated or collaborative divorces, the judgment incorporates the Divorce Settlement Agreement by reference into the judgment. This means that the Agreement the divorcing couple created in mediation or collaboration becomes their court order.
QDRO. A qualified domestic relations order is the mechanism for dividing a pension or defined contribution plan such as a 401(k) between spouses as part of a divorce.
COBRA. The state and federal versions of COBRA are laws requiring employers to continue providing medical and dental insurance benefits to the divorced spouse of an employee for 36 months post divorce.
Final Uncontested Hearing. The final uncontested hearing is the time and place at which a Superior Court judge reviews and approves the divorcing couple’s settlement agreement and enters a judgment of dissolution.
For spouses participating in mediation or collaboration, this will be their only court appearance. The mediator may or may not attend the final uncontested hearing. Collaborative lawyers will typically attend with their clients.
Although most adversarial cases are concluded with a final uncontested hearing, the road to the hearing is often long, expensive and destructive. In addition, the agreements reached in litigation may be flawed, unrealistic or the result of surrender, duress and exhaustion.
Trial. Adversarial Divorces Only. If litigating spouses are unable to settle their case, it will be tried before a Superior Court judge. Trials can last anywhere from several hours to many months. A judge has 120 days after the close of the trial to enter a judgment which will dissolve the marriage and include parenting and financial orders.