While Washington State does not require you to use the services of an attorney in a dissolution case, you must use specific forms, and you and your spouse must follow a case schedule issued by the court.
When you hire an attorney, he or she functions as an advocate for your interests during this difficult time. An attorney knows your legal rights, the process to follow, and which papers need to be filed.
What if I cannot afford an attorney to represent me?
If you cannot afford to hire an attorney to represent you, you may still be able to afford to have an attorney assist you in representing yourself.
This allows you to purchase just the help you can afford. This may consist of drafting the necessary legal documents for you, explaining the legal system and the steps you will need to take, advising you on arguing your case, explaining how to get your papers served on the other party, or performing legal research for you.
You can also hire any attorney to represent you for a single part of your case. This is called a “limited appearance.” You might, for instance, hire an attorney just to appear at a single hearing to help explain your case to the court.
In King County, you can get the names of attorneys offering these services by calling the King County Bar Association Lawyer Referral line at 206-267-7010.
How long does a divorce take?
The state of Washington has a mandatory 90-day waiting period between the start of a divorce and the time when it can be finalized in order to give the parties a chance to change their minds. The divorce is considered final when the court signs the Decree of Dissolution.
If the parties are able to reach an agreement on all issues, the divorce may be finalized as soon after the 90-day waiting period as they are able to present the final orders to the court. If they are not able to reach an agreement within the 90 days, they will need to wait until they have reached an agreement or have gone through a trial.
If the parties need a trial, the wait time varies from county to county, but a wait of a year is not uncommon. In some counties, a trial date is assigned when the case is filed; in other counties, it is not assigned until the court is requested to do so.
What is a divorce?
Divorce is the process of terminating a marriage when people find that they are no longer capable of living together as a couple. This may involve some or all of:
- Separating property and debts
- Establishing child and spousal support obligations
- Making parenting arrangements
- Obtaining restraining orders
- Changing names
Washington is a no fault state, which means that you do not need to prove wrongdoing in order to be entitled to a divorce. Either person may file a petition for divorce.
If the couple is in agreement about the terms of the divorce, they still have to wait a minimum period of 90 days from the time the case is started before the divorce can be final. If the couple is unable to reach an agreement, a trial may be needed to have a judge determine the terms of the divorce. The time it takes to reach trial varies from county to county, but around a year is fairly typical.
What is a legal separation?
A legal separation is basically the same as a divorce except that when it is over, the parties are still married even though they are no longer a couple.
A legal separation goes through the same process as a divorce and involves the same issues: separating property and debts, establishing child and spousal support obligations, making parenting arrangements, and obtaining restraining orders. As in a divorce, a trial may be needed if the parties are unable to agree on the terms of the legal separation.
After a period of six months following the finalization of the legal separation, either party can convert the legal separation to a divorce by making a motion to the court. Generally this is a simple step, as the division of assets, debts, and responsibilities has been worked out already in the legal separation.
What is an uncontested divorce?
An uncontested divorce means that the parties agree on all issues, such as division of property and debts, spousal support, child support, and parenting arrangements, as applicable. Not only does uncontested divorce help each save money on attorneys fees, but it lessens the emotional upheaval as well.
An uncontested divorce may also occur when the responding party, meaning the person who did not start the divorce, fails to file a response to the petition for dissolution. In that case, the person who filed the case will be able to obtain an order of default and complete the divorce without the other party’s participation.
Once the 90-day waiting period has elapsed, one party or the other must present the final orders to the court for signature in order to complete the divorce.
What am I entitled to in a divorce?
In a divorce, all property is to be divided in a manner that is fair and equitable. That means that the judge has almost unlimited authority to decide the proper disposition of assets and liabilities.
Oftentimes, separate property (property acquired before or after the marriage, or during the marriage by gift or inheritance to one person) will be awarded to the party that acquired it. On the other hand, community property (property that was acquired during the marriage that was not gifted to or inherited by one party) is divided. However, in order to achieve an overall fair result, the court can award one party a larger share of the community property and even the separate property of the other spouse.
The court may also award spousal support, a name change, and continuing restraining orders. If minor children are involved, the court will also determine appropriate child support and parenting arrangements.
What about restraining orders?
Restraining orders are court rulings that prohibit certain actions under penalty of law. These can be orders that require one person to stay away from another person or even avoid contact with the other person. The restrained person can be arrested for violating these orders.
Restraining orders can also be used to prevent the parties from getting rid of assets, changing insurance policies, or moving children out of the area while the divorce is pending.
Protection orders and antiharassment orders are forms of restraining orders that can be obtained outside of a divorce proceeding when violence or threats of violence have taken place between people. If you have been the victim of domestic violence, contact your local court to find out how to obtain a protective order.
What about name changes?
When a relationship ends in divorce, a person often wants to reinstate the name he or she (but most commonly she) had prior to the marriage. In most cases, a person has simply started using a spouse’s name without having their name legally changed, which means that person can simply go back to using their given name when they choose to do so.
At the same time, it may be useful to have a court order showing the premarriage name has been reinstated when the married name has been used in land or car title records, social security records, etc. If this is the case, the name change should be requested in the petition or response and included in the Decree of Dissolution.
Sometimes children’s last names may also be changed if the court finds it to be in their best interests.
What if domestic violence is involved?
If domestic violence occurs, call 911 immediately.
You can obtain restraining orders to keep the other person away from you in several different ways. If an arrest for domestic violence takes place, the criminal court may require the accused person to stay away from the victim. A victim of domestic violence may also seek a protection order through their local court. Finally, as part of a divorce action, a person may seek both temporary and continuing restraining orders.
If the restrained person violates the restraining order, they may be subject to arrest.
If a restraining order is in place, the protected person cannot waive the restraint without having it dismissed by the court. In other words, if there is a restraining order against you, you may be subject to arrest if you violate the order, even if the protected person has invited you to be with them.
What about paternity?
If you have a child with someone you are not married to, then you may need a paternity action to legally establish the identity of the father of the child. You may be able to get help with this process through the county prosecutor’s office, or you may file your own action with the court.
A DNA test may be required to establish whether the presumed father is the actual father of the child. DNA tests do not give absolute answers, but identify the odds of paternity.
If an acknowledgement of paternity has been signed by both parents and filed with the state, then it may not be necessary to establish the father of the child, but a parentage action may still be needed to obtain a parenting plan and order of child support.
What are prenuptial and postnuptial agreements?
A prenuptial agreement is an agreement made prior to marriage, and a postnuptial agreement is an agreement made after marriage. Oftentimes, couples like to make agreements early in their relationship to determine their rights and responsibilities as to property and debts. This can help them make decisions about management of those assets and liabilities during the marriage, as well as make division of the community easier if the relationship does terminate at some point in the future.
For instance, maintaining a business as separate property may be necessary so that the breakup of the marriage will not adversely impact the continued operation of the business. An agreement that offsets that separate property agreement with some other provision that provides for the other spouse in a different way may also be necessary.
These kinds of agreements can be disregarded by the courts if it appears they were not made with the full voluntary and informed consent of both parties. For instance, if an agreement was made shortly before a wedding date, or if both sides did not have an attorney involved, the court may assume that one side was pressured into signing the agreement and therefore set it aside.
If you are considering a prenuptial agreement but are close to your wedding date, it may be better to wait until after the wedding and do a postnuptial agreement instead.