How does the Divorce Process Work in Georgia?
Divorce can seem daunting and taking the first step can be difficult. The divorce process can be long, complex, and confusing, but it doesn't have to be. Arming yourself with the knowledge of how the divorce process works in Georgia will ease your anxiety and help prepare you so that you know what to expect when the time comes. The divorce process in Georgia at it's basic level is simple:
- One party files a complaint for divorce & the opposing party responds with an answer.
- The parties will conduct discovery and gather evidence.
- The parties will have temporary hearings if necessary and attempt mediation or settlement.
- If settlement is not possible, the parties will go to a divorce final trial/hearing.
Understand the Typical Divorce Process
Complaint for Divorce Filed
Start of litigation
Complaint is Served
Varies, but usually shortly after the complaint is filed
Answer to Complaint Due
30 days for the date of service
Anytime, but usually after initial discovery
Usually early in the process
Late Case Evaluation / Judicial Hosted Settlement Conference
Usually near the end of the case
Usually 6 months to years after the start of litigation
The Divorce Process: Step By Step
Initial Steps - Filing for Divorce
You must first determine if your divorce is contested (there are issues that the parties cannot agree on) or uncontested (the parties agree on how to resolve the divorce issues). The divorce process starts when one party files a "complaint for divorce" which is a legal document that explains to the court that a divorce is being sought. The opposing party will have 30 days to respond to the complaint with an "answer". Note that there is typically a filing fee (amount varies by county) that must be paid to the court when the initial complaint is filed.
Discovery & Gathering Evidence
Once the answer is filed and served, the discovery period will begin. Discovery is the process by which parties gather critical case relevant information and evidence from the opposing party. In a divorce or other domestic relations proceeding, discovery is conducted according to Georgia's Civil Practice Act. During the discovery period, the parties are permitted to send each other document requests and exchange different types of evidence.
Mediation & Settlement
Not every divorce cases ends with the parties arguing their case in a final trial. Most divorces settle before trial. In fact, many counties in Georgia require the parties to attempt mediation or settlement before coming to court. While there are several methods of alternative dispute resolution that lead to settlement, mediation is probably one of the most common methods. In mediation, a third party neutral will help guide both sides to a mutually agreeable settlement of their divorce.
Divorce Final Trial
The divorce final trial is the final step in your divorce. If both parties cannot agree on how to settle the issues in their divorce they will be required to go to court for a final trial on the contested issues in front a judge. At trial, both parties will have opportunities to make opening statements, present evidence, call witnesses, cross examine the other side's evidence and witnesses, and make a final closing statement. After the closing statements are done, the judge will enter a verdict and final decree of divorce.
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At trial, each party is given the opportunity to present his or her evidence and witnesses to the judge or jury presiding over the matter. While many people are familiar with the concept of trial and its purpose, they may not know specifics of what exactly to expect on their day in court. Be sure to show up on time, dress appropriately and treat the judge with respect by using "your honor" to address to them.
Settling your Divorce
Most divorces do not go to trial. In Georgia, divorces typically settle before a final trial becomes necessary. The methods by which a divorce case usually settles are outlined below.
Late Case Evaluation
Mediation is a process where a neutral third party helps facilitate settlement discussions between two parties. The mediator will guide both parties to common ground and settlement. The parties do not have to agree to any proposed settlements made during mediation. It's important to remember that the mediator also has no power to make decisions or verdicts. Some counties in Georgia require the parties to attempt mediation before final trial.
Arbitration is the process where an arbitrator or panel of arbitrators will have the parties' arguments and evidence presented to them in a similar fashion to how they would be presented in court. After hearing arguments and testimony from both sides, the arbitrator will make a decision in the case. The parties can decide beforehand whether any decision the arbitrator makes is legally binding or merely a recommendation or prediction of what will happen at trial. If the parties choose to have an arbitrator make a legally binding decision regarding their divorce, this can settle and resolve their divorce without the need for court.
Settlement conferences typically refer to judicially hosted settlement conferences or informal settlement conferences. The former is where a senior judge will agree to hear the case and both parties will present their arguments and evidence. Typically, the judge will then make a recommendation for settlement on the unresolved issues, and the parties may choose to settle or reject settlement and move forward with a final divorce trial. Informal settlement conferences are merely where the lawyers and respective parties negotiate between each other and draft a mutually agreed to settlement.
Late Case Evaluation
In Fulton County, Georgia, the late case evaluation is another option available for the parties. During a late case evaluation, a neutral late case evaluator, hears from both parties and makes a non-binding recommendation concerning settlement based on his or her experience. This recommendation does not have to be followed by the parties but it may help guide the parties to a settlement and prevent the need for a final divorce trial.