Everyone experiences difficulties at various points in life. These concerns can be numerous and minor, few and severe, or any combination between. Families endure financial hardship, healthcare problems, emotional and psychological differences, domestic disputes, births, deaths, and sometimes legal trouble. For married couples, these and other issues may lead spouses to consider divorce.
The question of whether to seek a divorce in Maricopa County can trouble a person for years because the process and consequences of legally dissolving a marriage are complex and frequently change. Some people may not know anyone who has divorced, or they may know people whose hardships only increased after beginning the process. Others may have outdated ideas about dissolution based on rules that no longer apply. Still more may understand the process but are not able to weigh the consequences on their own. Here are some tips and observations to enlighten your decision.
What is a dissolution?
In Arizona, ‘dissolution’ describes the process of legally ending a marriage (the same process that most people call ‘divorce’). Dissolution differs from annulment primarily in the court’s treatment of marital property because dissolution dissolves a marriage while an annulment treats the marriage as if it never existed because of some technical flaw in its formation. Parties whom the court acknowledges were married are typically entitled to a more comprehensive analysis and distribution of community assets than parties whose marriage should never have been granted (because, for example, one of the parties was under 18 and lacked legal capacity to marry without parental permission).
How do I get started?
Dissolution begins when one of the spouses files a Petition for Dissolution with the appropriate court (in Arizona, this is usually the Superior Court for the county in which one of the parties resides). For example, a married couple living in Scottsdale would likely file their dissolution action at the Superior Court of Maricopa County unless they have not lived in the state long enough to establish jurisdiction. The petition tells the court the information that it needs to confirm that the parties filed in the correct jurisdiction and lays out the issues that the petitioner needs to have resolved, such as division of marital property, orders for spousal maintenance, child support, parenting time, and legal decision-making authority (formerly called custody). Once the judge receives the petition and supporting paperwork, he will issue a preliminary injunction that orders the parties to maintain the ‘status quo’ by not unnecessarily depleting bank accounts or disposing other assets until the dissolution is complete.
Do I need to have a reason for divorce?
Arizona, like most states, does not require fault by one of the spouses before dissolving a marriage. Under the old system (abandoned decades ago), courts would only grant divorces if some form of marital impropriety occurred, such as adultery, abandonment, or domestic violence. Only uncommon covenant marriages maintain limited permissible bases for divorce that are established by contract before the parties marry. For non-covenant marriages (the vast majority), the petitioner need only declare in the petition that the marriage is irretrievably broken to begin the dissolution proceedings. Courts may still consider marital misconduct when dividing property or scheduling parenting time, but the days in which couples attempted to fabricate a basis for divorce are over.
My spouse has all the money. How can I afford a divorce?
With virtually infinite permutations of marital roles, it is extremely common that one spouse earns significantly more money than the other. Sometimes, one spouse controls most of the family’s financial affairs and the other is unsure of the existence or whereabouts of community assets. Unequal access to marital resources may work fine during the marriage, but it can also provide a basis for exploitation and stop an aggrieved spouse from seeking a divorce.
The fear of being ‘frozen out’ during dissolution proceedings should not prevent you from divorcing if you believe the marriage should end. Even before a final judgment dividing the community property, the judge can issue temporary orders requiring the higher-earning spouse to pay spousal maintenance and other expenses during the case. Spousal maintenance payments may continue after the divorce if one of the parties lacks substantial earning capacity or needs long-term support. Sometimes, the judge will also order one spouse to pay the other spouse’s legal fees, especially if the higher earner acts unreasonably during negotiations. Arizona law is structured to give parties with less bargaining power access to the same protections available to the high-income spouse.
What if I lose my kids in the divorce?
There is no denying the fact that dissolving a marriage takes a toll on everyone in the family. One of the biggest fears that traps people in toxic marriages is that the other parent will take the kids and the family will be destroyed.
First, Arizona law strongly favors granting as much parenting time to each parent as possible. Unless there is some reason to believe otherwise, such as domestic violence or criminal history, the court presumes that each parent is fit to raise the children and that the children’s interests are best served by having a meaningful and continuing relationship with each parent.
Although many parties threaten that they will ‘battle for custody’ to prevent their spouse from proceeding with a divorce, the determination of where the children will live and spend their time depends on the children’s best interests, not the persistence or finances of one of the parents. Unless your background or actions during the proceedings cast doubt on your ability to raise your children, your spouse cannot exclude you from their lives. If your marriage is toxic beyond repair, it may be best for your children for you to divorce instead of keeping them in a marital home filled with conflict. If you or your children need counseling to get through the process, that expense can also be included in the temporary orders.
Is being divorced worth getting divorced?
Whether you want to remain married is an immensely difficult question to answer. If you are truly unhappy in your marriage, however, you should not allow fear of the legal process to trap you in a toxic or dangerous situation. An experienced attorney with strong networking skills can get you the help you need to make an informed decision and, if you decide to seek dissolution, to make the proceedings move as smoothly as possible. When the quality and fulfillment of your life is at stake, a positive outcome is worth investigating.