What is Contested Divorce: Key Facts and Process Explained

A contested divorce, a term that often elicits feelings of unease and apprehension, refers to a legal procedure where both spouses cannot agree on one or more critical issues concerning the dissolution of their marriage. This disagreement can involve matters such as child custody, alimony, property distribution, or even the grounds for divorce. In such cases, a judge must preside over the case and make the decisions on behalf of the couple.

The period leading up to a contested divorce can be emotionally and financially draining for the individuals involved, as it typically involves lengthy legal proceedings. Both parties are required to present evidence supporting their respective positions and may also enlist attorneys’ expertise to help navigate this complex process.

While many couples do their best to avoid a contested divorce due to the potential hardships it can cause, it is sometimes an unavoidable reality for those who cannot reach a mutual understanding of these critical issues. Nonetheless, understanding the intricacies of a contested divorce can better prepare individuals for the challenges ahead as they navigate the tricky road toward the dissolution of their marriage.

What Is Contested Divorce

As mentioned, a contested divorce means the parties can’t agree on one or more issues, including the division of assets and debts, child custody, child support, and spousal support. In such cases, the divorce process becomes more complicated and often requires intervention from the court system to resolve the disputed matters.

In contrast, an uncontested divorce occurs when both spouses agree on all relevant issues and no disagreements are to be resolved. This type of divorce is usually quicker and less expensive, as it does not involve the extensive court proceedings typical of a contested divorce.

When a contested divorce is initiated, each spouse will present their case to the court, then decide on the disputed issues. This often involves providing evidence to support their claims, such as financial documentation or expert testimony. Both parties are usually represented by attorneys who advocate for their client’s best interests.

The legal proceedings of a contested divorce can be time-consuming and costly, as they may require multiple court appearances and involve various professionals, such as attorneys, mediators, and forensic accountants. As such, contested divorces can create additional stress and financial strain for both spouses.

It is important to note that even if a divorce starts as contested, it can become uncontested if the couple manages to resolve their disagreements. They may reach a consensus on their own or with the help of legal professionals, such as mediators or collaborative divorce attorneys.

In sum, a contested divorce is a more challenging process than an uncontested divorce, as it involves disputes that need to be resolved by the court system. It can be more time-consuming, costly, and emotionally taxing for both parties. Regardless of the type of divorce, seeking professional guidance and support from a knowledgeable attorney can be invaluable in navigating the complexities of the legal process.

Contested vs. Uncontested Divorce

Pros and Cons of Contested Divorce

A contested divorce refers to a situation where the spouses cannot agree on various aspects of the divorce, such as custody, property division, or spousal support. This type of divorce is often more time-consuming and financially and emotionally draining.


  • Allows for fair representation of both parties’ interests
  • Provides a legal platform for negotiation
  • This can result in more equitable outcomes, depending on the circumstances


  • A lengthy process, often taking months or years
  • Expensive, as both spouses typically require attorney representation
  • Emotionally stressful for everyone involved, including the children

Pros and Cons of Uncontested Divorce

On the other hand, an uncontested divorce involves both parties agreeing on all aspects of the divorce, often through mediation or negotiation. This type of divorce is generally quicker, less expensive, and easier on everyone involved.


  • Faster resolution, usually completed within a few months
  • Costs less due to decreased legal fees and court costs
  • Less emotional stress for all parties, including children


  • May result in less equitable outcomes if one party has more bargaining power
  • Once finalized, changes to the agreement are more challenging to make
  • Potential for unaddressed conflicts to resurface later as disagreements

The Divorce Process

Filing a Petition

The divorce process begins when one spouse files a divorce petition. This document is submitted to the court and outlines the reasons for divorce and any demands or requests. The petition is then served to the other spouse, who can either agree or contest the terms.

Temporary Orders

After the petition is filed, temporary orders may be put in place. These orders address immediate concerns, such as child custody, spousal support, and property division. They remain in effect until the final divorce judgment is issued.


During the discovery phase, both parties gather and exchange information relevant to the case. This can include financial records, property evaluations, and more. Discovery helps ensure that all relevant information is available before negotiations and trials.

  • Financial Records: Bank statements, tax returns, and other assets.
  • Property Evaluations: Assessments of property value and potential division.

Negotiation and Settlement

Once all information has been gathered, both parties will work towards a settlement agreement. This process typically involves negotiations between the parties, often with the assistance of attorneys, to reach a mutually satisfactory resolution.

  • Mediation: A neutral third party can assist with negotiation.
  • Collaborative Divorce: Attorneys advocate for their clients while promoting cooperation.

Trial and Judgment

The case will likely proceed to trial if a settlement cannot be reached. During the trial, both parties will present their arguments and evidence before a judge, who will ultimately decide the terms of the divorce. Following the trial, the judge issues the divorce judgment, which outlines the final terms of the divorce.

Key Issues in Contested Divorce

Custody Arrangements

One of the main concerns in a contested divorce is determining the custody arrangements for any children involved. Both parents typically want what is best for their children, but they may have different ideas about what that entails. In these cases, the court will decide on the child custody arrangement, considering factors such as the child’s age, the child’s relationship with each parent, and the child’s needs and preferences.

Property and Asset Division

Another crucial issue in contested divorce proceedings is the division of marital assets and debts. This process can be complicated, as it involves identifying assets acquired during the marriage, determining their value, and dividing them fairly between both parties. Sometimes, one spouse may try to hide assets or minimize their value to gain an advantage. By providing accurate records of all financial accounts, property holdings, and debts, both parties can help ensure a fair outcome. The division of debts should also be addressed, considering factors such as which party incurred the debt and for what purpose.

Spousal and Child Support

Lastly, spousal and child support can be significant points of contention in a contested divorce. While child support is usually based on a specific formula that includes factors such as the parent’s income, the number of children, and the amount of time each parent spends with the children, and spousal support can vary significantly based on the length of the marriage, the financial needs of each spouse, and their ability to earn a living.

Child Support: The court will determine the amount of child support that must be paid, ensuring that the child’s needs are met and both parents are contributing fairly. Child support payments typically continue until the child reaches the age of majority or until other circumstances warrant a support change.

Spousal Support: In contrast, spousal support is less predictable and is subject to the court’s discretion. The purpose of spousal support is to allow the lower-earning spouse to maintain a reasonable standard of living after the divorce. The court will consider factors such as marital contributions, the length of the marriage, and the earning capacity of each spouse when determining if spousal support is necessary and for how long it should be paid.

Legal Aspects

Role of Attorneys in Contested Divorce

In a contested divorce, both parties usually have their respective attorneys to represent their interests and advocate for them. The lawyer plays a vital role in negotiating, preparing, and presenting evidence to the court. Attorneys assist in drafting the pleadings, engaging in discovery, and handling all other aspects of the legal process. Professional guidance from divorce attorneys ensures that the parties understand their rights and obligations during the proceedings.

Costs and Fees

The cost of a contested divorce can vary depending on the complexity of the case and the level of conflict between the parties. Some expenses involved in the legal process include:

  • Filing fee: The court usually charges a fee for filing the divorce papers.
  • Attorney fees: Both parties must pay their respective lawyers for their time and expertise.
  • Legal fees: Additional fees may arise from hiring experts, such as financial advisors or child custody evaluators, to provide professional opinions.

In contested divorces, attorney and legal fees can be significantly higher than in an uncontested divorce, as matters can drag on, resulting in more billable hours for the professionals involved.


If one party is not satisfied with the court’s final decision, they can file an appeal. However, the appealing party must have valid grounds to challenge the ruling. Appeals often involve additional costs, such as an attorney, filing, and other related expenses. It is important to note that the acceptance of an appeal is not guaranteed, and the process can further prolong the divorce proceedings.

Alternative Dispute Resolution

Divorce Mediation

Divorce mediation is a process in which a neutral third-party mediator helps the divorcing couple negotiate and reach agreements on various issues, such as child custody, support, and division of assets. Mediation can be a cost-effective and time-saving alternative to traditional litigation.

During mediation, the mediator does not make decisions for the couple but instead facilitates communication and guides them in finding mutually acceptable solutions. This process encourages open and honest communication, allowing couples to maintain control over the outcomes.

Collaborative Divorce

Collaborative divorce is another dispute resolution method that enables couples to work with trained professionals to reach a mutually beneficial agreement. In this process, both spouses retain their own collaboratively trained attorneys, and other professionals such as financial neutrals and mental health coaches may also be involved.

The collaborative process emphasizes cooperation, respect, and transparent communication. The parties sign a participation agreement stipulating that if the matter cannot be resolved, the collaborative attorneys must withdraw from the case. The spouses retain new counsel for court proceedings. This encourages an atmosphere of problem-solving and reduces the adversarial nature of traditional divorces.


Arbitration is a private, legally binding process in which an impartial arbitrator serves as a private judge to decide on contentious issues within a divorce. Both parties present their case to the arbitrator, who then reviews the evidence and delivers a binding decision, known as an award.

Compared to court trials, arbitration is often faster and more flexible, as the parties can select their arbitrator and participate in creating the rules and procedures for the proceedings. However, unlike mediation and collaborative divorce, arbitration does not allow the parties to actively participate in reaching an agreement, as the decision lies with the arbitrator.


What is a contested divorce?

A contested divorce occurs when spouses cannot agree on issues such as child custody, alimony, property division, or other essential matters. In this case, the divorce proceedings are often lengthier and require court intervention to resolve these disagreements.

What are the main reasons for a contested divorce?

There are several common reasons for contested divorces:

  • Disagreements on child custody and visitation rights
  • Disputes about the division of assets and liabilities
  • Conflicts about spousal support or alimony
  • Differences in beliefs about the grounds for divorce

How long does a contested divorce typically take?

The duration of a contested divorce largely depends on the issues’ complexity and the parties’ willingness to negotiate. In general, contested divorces can take several months to more than one year, particularly if they go to trial.

What is the process for a contested divorce?

  1. Filing the divorce petition: One spouse files a divorce petition with the court, stating the grounds for divorce and the desired terms for child custody, alimony, and property division.
  2. Serving divorce papers: The petitioning spouse serves the other with the divorce papers, giving them a certain amount of time to respond.
  3. Response from the other spouse: The served spouse files a response, either agreeing to or contesting the terms stated in the divorce petition.
  4. Discovery phase: Both spouses exchange information and documentation about their assets, income, and financial situation.
  5. Negotiations and mediation: The spouses attempt to negotiate an agreement on contested issues, which may involve mediation or collaborative law.
  6. Court hearings and trial: If negotiations and mediation fail to resolve the disagreements, the case may proceed to trial, where the judge will decide on the contested matters.

Can a contested divorce be changed to an uncontested divorce?

Yes, a contested divorce can become uncontested if both spouses can agree on all issues during the divorce process. In such cases, the couple submits a signed agreement to the court outlining the terms they have agreed upon, which then makes the divorce uncontested.