Your divorce officially starts when you file a complaint. This is a formal document, filed with your local circuit court, that provides all the details of your marriage to the court. In your complaint, you’ll allege your date of marriage, date of separation, the names and dates of birth of your children, and also give information regarding your specific grounds for divorce.
Depending on how your divorce is structured, you may file your complaint at different points in the process. If you’re litigating your divorce (that is, if you’re going to let it play out in front of the judge, who will ultimately decide how everything will be divided), you’ll file your complaint at the beginning of the process. If you’re negotiating a separation agreement, you won’t file your complaint until your one year of separation is up (or six months if you have minor children) and your agreement is signed.
The complaint is the document that officially opens your case with the court. This can be a strange way of thinking for women who are in the middle of negotiating a separation agreement with their husbands, because obviously the divorce process has already begun for them. However, as far as the circuit court is concerned, there is no record of your divorce at all until the complaint is actually filed. Up until this point, the court doesn’t know that you and your husband are anything other than happily married.
Your complaint will also allege your grounds for the divorce. The language here can be quite different, too, depending on where you are in the process. If you’ve negotiated a separation agreement, your complaint will say that you’re asking for a divorce to be granted on the grounds of having lived separate and apart without interruption and without cohabitation for a period in excess of one year. It will also say that you’ve negotiated a separation agreement, and that you want it affirmed, ratified, and incorporated into a subsequently entered final decree of divorce. Since you don’t need the court to handle equitable distribution, support, and custody, you don’t have to ask for it in your complaint.
If you’re litigating your divorce, your complaint will be a different document entirely. In it, you’ll allege your specific grounds, which could either be no fault (based on your separation for the statutory period), or fault. If you allege fault-based grounds, you’ll also lay out a little bit of your claim supporting that fault-based ground. For example, if you’re alleging adultery, you’ll also put in your complaint the initials of the person with whom you believe the adultery occurred, the approximate date on which the adultery occurred, and the approximate location of the adultery. You don’t have to PROVE adultery in your complaint, but you have to show the court that you have a reasonable belief that adultery occurred. You’ll also have to specifically ask the court to award you everything you want, so you’ll say you want equitable distribution, primary physical custody of the children with visitation to dad, child support, spousal support, and so on. Basically, you should be asking for EVERYTHING in your complaint because, if you don’t, the court won’t have the authority to award it later.
To start your divorce in the eyes of the court, you’ll have to file your complaint. Before that, though, you may have already negotiated your separation agreement, and at least begun living separate and apart, whether under the same roof or in different residences.