Over the course of my divorce, I went to the courthouse a total of four times.
The very first time I went to court, I went for the purpose of filing my response to his Petition for Dissolution of Marriage.
That Petition is just the court’s fancy way of saying my ex-husband was asking the law to end our marriage. As the other person in our marriage, I then either needed to agree or disagree. I let the court know which option I chose by filing a response.
After being served with his Petition, I went through each and every page. I made a note of what he was asking for in his Petition for dissolution, child custody, visitation, child support, spousal support, and asset distribution. In my papers, I responded to each and every one of his requests, carefully and clearly. I then took off from work and made my way to the courthouse. I had no idea what to expect. (Again. I write that a lot. Clearly a theme for this whole process!) I called my mom on the drive so I could be both a little distracted, and comforted. I arrived, parked my car, and walked the lonely path to the courthouse’s security line. I easily went through and made a left toward the Filing Office.
I presented my papers and was all prepared to get them stamped and be done. Except, I was completely unaware that someone had to pay for this divorce - the papers, the manpower, the time, etc. Generally, the person initiating the action pays for it. This would be my ex-husband. But since he had recently been laid off at the time he filed for divorce, he was able to obtain a fee waiver excusing him from paying anything. While I was employed, I had only recently started working and was attempting to catch up on bills. I couldn’t afford that $450+ fee! I asked for a fee waiver and completed it. But I was told that because I was employed and making above the poverty guideline, my fee waiver would have to be approved by a judge.
I made my way up a few floors and waited in a stale courtroom for a judge to give me that approval. I rehearsed in my mind what I’d say when he asked me why I needed it. Except, I never got the opportunity to say my speech. At some point between cases, the bailiff had handed the judge my fee waiver and the judge had declined it, just like that. Without even looking at my tear stained and forlorn face. I took my papers back from the bailiff and shuffled back to the elevator. I tried to keep it together, but I just cried and cried in that crowded elevator. He had the nerve to divorce me, yet I had to pay for it! I was both outraged and devastated. But God sent me a little angel. There was a lawyer who I worked for during law school in the elevator with me. She recognized me, asked what I was doing there, and laid a gentle hand on my shoulder as I sobbed. She gave me her card and told me to call her for the next steps.
I went back to the Filing Office, where the line and office had gotten much busier. That meant I had even longer to cry as I waited. Eventually, it was my turn at the window. I remember the clerk telling me “That’ll be $456. Is that okay?” And I responded, “Of course that’s not okay. But do I have another option?!” She told me to go ahead and slide my card, and I don’t think I could have slid it any slower if I tried! I paid the filing fee, submitted my papers, and left the building. While every minute of that experience hurt, it was done.
2. The second time I went to court, it was for the purpose of attending child custody and visitation mediation.
Since my ex had indicated in his Petition that we had a child while married and requested certain custody rights, the court referred us to their mediator. It was pretty soon after I filed my response. While having been there before, the first time jitters were all gone. But I was still pretty anxious about the idea of meeting with a mediator and creating a visitation schedule. When I arrived at the courthouse, I immediately spotted my ex, sitting on a bench, looking out the window, with a despondent look on his face.
We didn’t say much to each other. The feelings about our divorce were still pretty fresh, and the nervousness we both were experiencing had us emotionally preoccupied. A few minutes later, the mediator called us into her office. We sat down, perpendicular to one another. The mediator explained that her goal was to get us to come to a visitation schedule that would work for both of us and meet our daughter’s needs. She was kind and patient, and very knowledgeable. She went through what a normal week would be like for us and our 2-year-old. And then we went through each and every holiday. It was both tedious (because there are a lot of holidays) and complex (because there are a lot of factors to consider - odd years, even years, age, times of day, pickup/drop-off, etc.). We took turns crying; I’d cry whenever he mentioned overnight visits, and he’d cry whenever I’d attempt to decline one of his requests. Just the very thought of no longer spending each and every day with our daughter, the way we would if we were married, was undoubtedly the hardest realization of that mediation. In the end, the mediator thought our agreement was fair and reasonable and would submit it to the court for approval.
3. The third time I went to court, it was for the purpose of getting the custody and visitation agreement approved by the judge.
Shortly after our mediation, we got a notice in the mail of a court date for approval of our custody and visitation agreement. I was a little less nervous that day, but still unsure of what to expect. I made my way to the courthouse, and into the designated courtroom where I found my ex inside. We told the bailiff who we were and why we were there. We then watched as several other couples got before the judge and pled their cases for divorce. Having been to law school, I found it pretty interesting. But I wasn’t sure if we would need to get up and plead our cases, and I could tell my ex was wondering the same thing. So we waited and waited. Finally, our names were called. We stood up and approached the bailiff and court clerk. They handed us a large manila envelope, gave us a few other instructions, and told us we were free to go. We left the courtroom, opened the envelope, and saw that our custody and visitation agreement had been approved. While we weren’t excited about having to split our daughter’s time, we were relieved that another step in the process had been successfully completed.
4. The last time I went to court, it was for the purpose of submitting our marital settlement agreement.
If you’ll recall, my ex filed papers first and they had errors in them. As a result, the papers I filed, addressing those errors, meant our marriage was contested. But when he and I talked, we were actually in agreement on most of the aspects of our divorce. To avoid having to go before a judge to argue our case, we (with the help of one of my law school friends) drafted a marital settlement agreement. It addressed each and every aspect of our divorce - who was getting what, when, how, and why. We each signed it, and I filed it with the court. Having been my fourth visit to the courthouse, I breezed into the courthouse like a professional! I wasn’t nervous, I didn’t need guidance, and I didn’t cry. I filed our papers and was out of there in about 30 minutes.
If you have to go to court during the course of your divorce, here are a few tips:
Bring a friend or family member
Keep all important documents in a file/binder
Bring all important documents with you
Map out parking ahead of time
Dress for success
Treat yourself after each court visit
Practice power posing
Give yourself a nice block of time (for both the visit itself and decompressing afterward)
What has your experience been? What tips would you add?