For whatever reason, you’ve decided your marriage is at an end, and now you’re ready to file for divorce. Where do you start? The first step involves filing papers in court. But before you can do that, you need to know which court to go to.

State Law Requirements

State laws vary, but they all set out the details of how to go about getting a divorce, including where to file or start the process. Usually, you may file for a divorce in the county where your spouse lives, in the county where you and your spouse lived at the time of your separation or in the county where you live if your spouse doesn’t live in your state.

It’s important to check the laws in your area for specifics, but in general, here are some of the requirements you may see when it comes to figuring out where to file your divorce action:

  • The words domicile and residence are used in most state laws, but they’re not always used in the same way. In general, though, “domicile” means you have a permanent home in the state; “residence” means you’re in the state, but may not have a permanent home yet
  • In the vast majority of states, you must be in the state with a permanent home before you can file for divorce
  • In most states, you must live in the state for a certain period of time before you can file for divorce there, and the time periods vary. For instance, you must live in California for at least six months, but in New York it’s one year, and in Nevada it’s six weeks
  • In many states, there are local residence or domicile requirements, too. For instance, in California, you must have lived within a county for at least three months before you can file for divorce in that county
  • Many states allow military service members stationed in the state to file for divorce there even though they don’t satisfy the residence or domicile requirements

The Complaint or Petition

The main document you need to file with the court when starting a divorce is generally called either a complaint or petition, depending on state law. It formally asks the court to officially terminate your marriage.

For complaints, the names of the parties are “plaintiff” and “defendant.” For petitions, the names of the parties are “petitioner” and “respondent.” The plaintiff or petitioner is the spouse filing for divorce. 

Provide Notice to Your Spouse

To get a valid divorce you need to give your spouse notice that you’ve filed for a divorce. Personal service, which means having the divorce complaint or petition handed to your spouse in person, is the preferred method of service. However, other forms of service may be allowed in your state.

Once your spouse has been served, the court will start the process of ending the marriage. However, in many states, there’s a “cooling-off” period before a divorce becomes final, and these times vary. For instance, in California you have to wait six months, but in Utah you only have to wait 90 days. There’s no wait at all in Nevada.

You may file for a divorce without an attorney, but it’s probably best to at least consult with an attorney before filing for divorce. An attorney can explain how the process of filing for divorce works in your state, can help you file the paperwork and help make sure your rights are protected.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • What are the advantages of using an attorney to get a divorce rather then doing it by myself?
  • What court do I need to file my divorce in?
  • What do I do if I can’t find my spouse?