With 40% to 50% of all first marriages ending in divorce (this rate is even higher for those in second marriages), there is a possibility you will go through the divorce process in Florida. Since each state has developed its own divorce laws and guidelines, it’s important that Floridians understand the entire divorce process in Florida and how best to navigate each stage of it.
Most divorcing couples will go through seven stages of the divorce process in Florida; even those without children need to follow the standard procedures involved in a Florida divorce.
The Seven Stages of the Divorce Process in Florida
The divorce process in Florida can be broken down into seven stages, which are explained in further detail below.
Stage 1: Filing the Petition
The very first step taken once a couple have decided that divorce is inevitable is for one of the spouses to file a petition. The person who files the petition for dissolution of marriage is considered the “petitioner” while the other spouse will be considered the “respondent” for this divorce case. The petition should be filed in the circuit court of either where the married couple last lived together or where one of them currently lives.
The petition must include the claim that the marriage is “irretrievably broken” along with an explanation of what it wants to court to decide or determine. Throughout the entire divorce process in Florida, the filing party will be referred to as the “petitioner” (no favorable bias is given to either the petitioner or respondent; the terms are only used to identify each party). Any forms you may need to use can be found on the Florida Courts website.
Stage 2: Filing the Answer
Once a petition for the dissolution of marriage is filed, the respondent has 20 days to file an answer to the petition. In their answer, the respondent tells the court the following:
- What portions of the petition in which the respondent is in agreement or accepts as actual fact
- What portions of the petition in which the respondent does not agree with the petitioner or declares to be false
- What portions of the petition in which the respondent is unaware of claims being made
It is during the answer stage that the respondent may also include a counter-petition for dissolution of marriage, raising other matters with the court. In such an event, the original petitioner is required to respond to the counter-petition. Again, the Florida Courts website can provide you with necessary forms for this stage of the process.
Stage 3: Filing Additional Paperwork
After the petition has been filed and answered, there is additional paperwork the court needs to assess each individual case and make informed decisions based upon the facts and merits of the couple’s situation. The most common forms required by the Florida courts include:
- Financial Affidavit – financial statements must be filed by both parties within 45 days of the served petition, declaring income, expenses, assets, and liabilities
- Child Support – before any hearing concerning child support can be held, a child-support guidelines worksheet must be filed with the courts
- UCCJEA Affidavit – when there are minor children involved, even when both parents agree on time-sharing, the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA) Affidavit must be filed
Stage 4: Discovery
Usually, the financial affidavit required in the previous stage doesn’t cover all the financial information and details of both parties. There are other mandatory disclosures which can include:
- Tax Returns
- Proof of Income
- Credit Card Statements
- Bank Statements
- Retirement Account Statements
- Other investment Account Statements
- Proof of Other Debts
The purpose of discovery is to allow each party to exercise their right to find out pertinent financial information about the other party; both sides must offer full disclosure, producing supporting documents upon request or answering questions under oath.
Stage 5: Mediation
In almost every area of Florida, the law requires the couple to enter into mediation with the intention of resolving any issues which previously could not be agreed upon.
There are multiple advantages to using mediation during the divorce process in Florida, including:
- Impartiality – the mediator is not there to take sides but to listen to each side and offer professional and experienced feedback
- Self-Determining – a mediator does not make decisions but rather discusses them and offers suggestions and advice
- Confidential – besides serious issues such as child abuse, anything disclosed in mediation remains confidential
- Avoid Judicial Decisions – instead of risking the judge making a decision you don’t like, you’re better served to reach an agreement you can live with
- Save Time and Money – often, mediation will finish quicker than a formal trial, saving you time and fees
In situations where a spouse is a victim of domestic violence, this stage may be skipped altogether.
Stage 6: Parenting Plans
If the dissolving marriage has any children under the age of 18, a parenting plan must be submitted to the Florida divorce court. According to Florida Statute Title VI, Chapter 61, Section 13, which encourages parents to “share the rights and responsibilities, and joys, of childrearing,” a parenting plan must include the following information:
- Schedule – details concerning how time-sharing of the children is accomplished, using a regular calendar schedule with alternating holidays
- Task Sharing – agreement as to sharing responsibility for the raising of the children
- Forms – one parent should be designated as the guardian authorized to complete forms for health care, education, and other activities
- Parental Communication – an explanation as to how the divorced parents will maintain communication (hint: it’s never through the kids!)
Finally, all divorcing parents of minor children must attend a mandatory parenting class before the Florida court will enter a final dissolution of marriage. This four-hour parenting class can even be taken, completed, and certified all online on the same day.
Stage 7: The Trial
Sometimes called the final contested hearing, a trial before a judge (no jury is involved) is scheduled if unsettled issues remain after mediation. It is rare for spouses to disagree on everything, making it important to complete and file a marital settlement agreement for dissolution of marriage with the court, highlighting agreements in the following areas:
- Property Division
- Parenting Plan
- Child Support
- Attorney Fees
This agreement must be signed and notarized by both spouses.
As this is a formal legal procedure, you must treat this stage of the divorce process in Florida with the utmost respect. This includes dressing appropriately for the court appearance, remaining polite throughout the trial, and addressing the judge as “sir,” “ma’am,” or “your honor.” The judge will hear from both sides, allow witnesses and cross-examinations, and review any evidence brought to the court.
Once both parties have had the opportunity to present their case and concerns, the judge will decide on matters the couple were unable to agree upon on their own and enter the final judgment at the completion of the hearing. If minor children are involved, the parenting plan submitted to the court must also be approved and established by the court.
As you can see, the divorce process in Florida is clear and easy to follow. This, however, does not negate the need for a qualified divorce attorney to represent your side and interests. With Florida Law Advisors, you will find both the experience and empathy needed to endure this emotionally trying time in your life. Contact us today for a free consultation and to bring the right team on your side, using our years of experience and success to ensure that you and your children complete this process as smoothly and easily as possible.