Overview of the New Hampshire Divorce Process
Divorce in New Hampshire is the process by which a marriage is dissolved and orders are issued regarding the distribution of property, support, and in cases with minor children, parenting. The case starts with the filing of a Petition and ends with the court issuing a Decree of Divorce. Although many cases are filed in the courts each year, most of the parties will ultimately reach an agreement prior to the final hearing. Where in the process that agreement is reached is the biggest factor in cost, time and emotional turmoil. Attempting to resolve the case from the beginning can save time, money and create a better result. The following is a general overview of the typical court process in a traditional divorce.
Filing the Petition
The case begins with the filing of a Petition for Divorce and payment of a filing fee. A petition can be filed by one party, who then becomes the petitioner, or the parties can file a petition together called a Joint Petition. The petition is very general and provides the court information regarding the parties, the grounds for the divorce, major assets of the couple and whether there are minor children. If it is an individual petition, the other party must be properly served with the petition in order for the case to begin. Along with the petition, the court requires the filing of a Personal Data Sheet. This form provides the court with address and contact information for each of the parties.
Once the petition is filed and proper service is made, the court will schedule a hearing. If there are minor children, this hearing will be called a First Appearance. This hearing is mostly informational, but there are certain things that you must do before this hearing. The first is to register to attend the Child Impact Program, which is a 4-hour informational seminar on how to help children deal with issues surrounding divorce. Parties can attend separately or together. There is an $85.00 fee per person for this class. Second, if the hearing is more than 45 days after the petition was served, you will need to have complied with Rule 1.25A, including filing a Financial Affidavit with the court. See below for more information on these items.
If there are no minor children, the court will often schedule a Status Hearing or Status Conference. This is a short hearing where the Court will determine what the next action in the case should be. The Rule 1.25A requirements apply in these cases, too.
In most cases the court will schedule the parties for mediation with a court-appointed mediator. This can happen at various points in the process but often occurs at the First Appearance or at the Status Hearing.
The court has a rule that requires parties to exchange a list of financial documents. These documents must be provided to the other party within 45 days of the service of the petition, or 10 days before a Temporary Hearing, whichever comes first. These documents do not get filed with the court, but failure to provide them to the other party can result in a contempt finding by the judge.
Prior to any hearing, the court will require the parties to complete a Financial Affidavit and file it with the court. This form lists each of the parties’ gross income and all of the parties’ assets and debts. This form is sworn to under oath as a statement which is complete, true, and accurate. The second part of the Financial Affidavit is a monthly expense sheet which requires a detailed accounting of expenses for each party. These documents are a critical part of any divorce case and should be filled out completely and accurately. You will need to update this form before each hearing.
The Temporary Hearing is where the court issues orders which will be in effect while the case is pending. At these hearings the court will often decide who will remain in the marital home, what support will be paid, who will provide insurance, who will pay the expenses while the case is pending, and what the parenting schedule will be. These orders are only controlling while the case is pending, but that can often be a significant period of time. In many cases, it can be almost a year from the time of Temporary Hearing to the issuance of final orders.
This is the hearing where the court issues final orders on property, support, and parenting. These hearings can range in time from a few hours to a few weeks, depending on the complexity of the case. Final orders need to address all outstanding issues in the case and will make definitive awards of property ownership. Final orders are made through three main documents known as the Final Decree, Uniform Support Order and Final Parenting Plan. Each of these documents address specific aspects of the divorce.
The final asset and debt awards are made in the Final Decree. This is the most detailed document in a divorce and contains the orders relating to property division, ownership of the marital home, division of retirement funds, college expenses, health insurance, payment of debt, care and ownership of pets, and personal property, among many other things. A Final Decree will be issued in every case regardless of whether there are minor children.
If the court orders either alimony or child support, it will issue a Uniform Support Order (USO). This order sets out the amount and length of time for alimony and details the payment of child support. It will also address which parent is responsible for providing health insurance for the kids.
The last order is only used in cases with minor children and is called the Parenting Plan. The Parenting Plan lays out what the parenting schedule will be, whether there is joint or sole decision making for the children, who can claim the children as tax exemptions, and other orders relating to the children and their care. Once all of the necessary orders have been made, the court issues the Final Decree of Divorce. This is the official document granting the Divorce.
The above is meant to be a general outline of the process. It is not a complete blueprint for every litigated case. Throughout the process the court may schedule additional hearings to address issues specific to that case. The court may hold review hearings on parenting issues or may hold hearings to address discovery disputes. In some cases the court may appoint a Guardian Ad Litem to make recommendations on parenting. The court may order parties to attend drug and alcohol or mental health counseling and may order them to submit to evaluations or drug testing. In complex financial cases the court may even appoint a commissioner to oversee financial disclosures. Each case is unique and requires different levels of court involvement and oversight. Ultimately, in a litigated case, the court has broad authority to issue those orders it deems necessary.
In a divorce, the question is not whether decisions on property, parenting and support will be made. In the end, the Court will issue orders on all of them. The most important questions are how do you want those decisions to be made and who do you want making them. This is where you have a choice. For some families, litigation is the best option; for others, mediation, the collaborative process, or settlement negotiations are a better alternative. Learning about your options and determining which approach is best for you and your family is a crucial step. Choosing the right process in which to make these essential decisions is as important as the decisions themselves. Call me to make an appointment to discuss what options are best for you.