A Florida divorce proceeding begins when either spouse files a divorce petition with the court. Regardless of who files the petition first, both spouses have equal rights in these proceedings. The petition informs the court that a spouse is seeking a divorce and asks the court to grant them certain financial, property and custodial arrangements. This is the beginning of the negotiating process between the attorneys.
The next step is notifying the non-filing spouse about the divorce. In Florida, this must be done by personal service. This simply means the divorce petition must be hand delivered on the non-filling spouse by either a sheriff or a certified process server. When you file your petition with the court, most courts will have a list of approved process servers for your convenience. This type of process is only required for this first step. All other responses and communication between the parties may be done through the mail.
Once the non-filing spouse is served with the divorce petition, by Florida law, they must answer it within 20 days of receiving it or that spouse risks the court deciding on the divorce without hearing from them. If you have been served with divorce papers and would like an attorney to represent you, it is best to contact them right away so they have sufficient time to work on an answer to the petition that represents what your objectives.
Now that both spouses have filed their requests with the divorce court and each other, Florida law requires Mandatory Disclosure. This means that each spouse has to truthfully fill out a financial affidavit form. This form discloses all of your assets, income, expenses and debts. The form is filed promptly with the court and any delay may result in the judge holding that spouse in contempt of court. Be prepared to have copies of your financial records as the court may require you share those with your spouse.
At this point, the discovery begins. Discovery is what the court calls the process of the two spouses exchanging all of their evidence. Either party can do this by either asking the other to produce certain documents, provide written answers to questions, or take sworn and recorded testimony. During this time, either party could also ask the court to order witnesses and third parties to do any of those things as well.
Once discovery is complete, the court will require the parties to submit to mediation. Mediation is a confidential hearing with both spouses, their attorneys and a mediator. During this meeting, the mediator attempts to facilitate a settlement on all the contested issues such as spousal support, property distribution and custody. The mediator cannot force the settlement; it must come from the spouses. If a settlement cannot be reached, it is as if the mediation never happened. Anything that was said or worked out during mediation is sealed and cannot be used in court. At this point, the case would continue onto trial. On the other hand, if both spouses can agree to a settlement, the divorce attorneys will write it up and the spouses will sign it. That document will now be used by the court as their settlement agreement. All that is left is a short hearing in front of the judge, where only one party is required to attend. The judge will review and sign the final judgment of the divorce.
If your case is continuing onto trial, the divorce court will schedule a case management conference. The purpose of it is to give the judge a chance to sit down with both spouses and their divorce attorneys and make sure the case is proceeding smoothly. The judge does not make any decisions about the case at this conference, but may order the spouses to fulfill any requirements they have not done so.
A pretrial hearing is typically scheduled next. At the pretrial, the case is cleaned up and the schedule is laid out. Any claims that have been settled or discarded are noted, so the court has a clear understanding of what claims will be moving forward to trial. At this point, the judge may order the spouses back to mediation on those final claims. The court also sets the dates for the end of discovery, witness lists and the trial itself. Even though the trial date is set, cases may still be settled at any point before the trial starts. This hearing is typically done without the spouses present.
Just so you are aware, at any point after the petition is filed until the trial, you may be faced with filing or defending a motion before the court. Motions are used by either party requesting a court order. They need to be filed with the court and the opposing party. For example, if a spouse is refusing to respond to discovery requests, the opposing spouse may file a motion to compel discovery. The parties will be brought in front of the judge for a short hearing, where both parties will state their case. Typically, the judge will make an immediate decision. Some other typical motions are for temporary support or custody, for exclusive use of martial home.
The final step is the trial. Both parties will have a chance to present their cases. This is done by calling witnesses, entering in evidence and having the opportunity to cross-examine each witness opposing them. Once both sides have presented their cases, the attorneys make their closing arguments. The judge then considers all the evidence and witness and makes a final decision on all aspects of the case. This decision could come immediately or may take several weeks or months.