Contested Divorce

What is a Contested Divorce?

A contested divorce, also known as a litigated divorce, is a divorce where the spouses cannot agree on one or more issues, requiring judicial intervention and arguments before a judge. Unlike an uncontested divorce where both parties agree to the terms, a contested divorce involves disputes over issues like:

Reasons for a Contested Divorce

Dividing Assets and Debts

The division of assets like houses, cars, bank accounts, and other properties is often a huge point of contention. Determining who gets what, the values of each asset, debts owed, and proving ownership can get complicated. The court will divide marital property equitably if the couple cannot agree.

Child Custody Disputes

When parents cannot agree on a parenting plan regarding legal and physical custody, the matter goes before a judge. Custody battles involve testimony about what arrangement is in the child’s best interests. These cases can be contentious and emotional.

Spousal Support Disputes

Contested divorces often involve disagreements over whether one spouse should receive spousal support or alimony from the other, how much, and for how long. Support determination considers factors like income disparity, marriage length, and earning capacities.

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The Contested Divorce Process

Filing the Divorce Petition

To start a contested divorce, one spouse files a summons and petition for dissolution with the court, stating the grounds for divorce and demands. The petition gets served to the other spouse who must respond within a set timeframe.

Serving Your Spouse

The petitioner must properly notify the other spouse of the case against them. This involves officially serving them the summons and petition, usually by certified mail, a process server, sheriff, or publication.

Responding to the Petition

The responding spouse must officially answer the divorce petition in writing within a set period, usually 20 to 30 days. This involves either contesting issues or disputing allegations made in the petition. A lack of response can lead to a default judgment.

Gathering Evidence and Documentation

Contested divorces often come down to documentation and objective evidence proving claims. This can involve gathering financial records, appraisals, records of misconduct, communications, and witness testimonies or affidavits.

Attempting Settlement Outside of Court

Before proceeding to trial, spouses may participate in alternative dispute resolution methods like arbitration, mediation, or collaborative divorce. Over 90% of disputed divorces settle before seeing a judge.

Going to Trial

If significant issues remain contested, the case goes to trial before a judge who will hear arguments and evidence from both sides before rendering legally binding decisions on outstanding matters. Most states require resolving divorce trials within 12 months.

Costs of a Contested Divorce

Attorney’s Fees

Contested divorces cost far more than uncontested ones mostly due to legal fees paid to attorneys to handle complex proceedings over months or years. Total costs average $15,000 but high asset stakes can mean fees exceeding $100,000.

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Expert Witnesses

Cases involving business valuations, forensic accounting, custody evaluations, and dividing retirement accounts often require testimony from costly specialized expert witnesses charging $200 or more per hour.

Lost Wages and Time

Contested divorces require numerous court appearances causing clients to take time off work and lose wages. Child custody disputes alone average between $20,000 and $30,000 in lost paychecks over months.

Tips for a Contested Divorce

Try to Settle First

Make reasonable efforts to negotiate settlements on outstanding issues before court actions. You’ll save substantial money and pain. Mediation or collaborative divorce can facilitate agreements.

Gather Documentation

Start compiling relevant records right away. Tax returns, asset values, communications, receipts, titles, credit card statements, and recordings can help prove or dispute claims over money and improper behaviors.

Be Realistic

Understand that compromise goes both ways. Have reasonable expectations over assets, support, and custody, letting go of spite and anger. Unwillingness to bend leads to painful court interventions.

Life After a Contested Divorce

Shared Parenting

Joint custody arrangements require frequent cooperative parenting with your ex regarding childcare schedules, expenses, activities, health, and education. Anger must be set aside.

Moving On Emotionally

Contested splits leave deeper relationship wounds. Allow yourself time to process events with self-care and social support. Therapy also helps facilitate acceptance and healing.


Contested divorces mean the spouses cannot agree on all issues like asset division and custody, requiring judicial intervention after lengthy legal proceedings and substantial costs. While the process is draining, understanding what’s involved and tips to mitigate pain can help you safeguard your rights.

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1.What percentage of divorces are contested?

About 10% of divorce cases remain contested or litigated requiring resolution before a judge. Over 90% of couples will settle out of court through compromise and agreements before reaching the trial phase.

2.What makes a divorce contested versus uncontested?

A divorce is considered contested when the spouses cannot agree on one or more issues like property division, finances, child custody, or support payments. These disputes must go before a judge for legally binding rulings.

3.How long does the average contested divorce take to finalize?

The contested divorce process takes between 1-3 years in most cases from start to legally finalized judgment. Attempting settlement early can shorten the timeline. Child custody disputes often take the longest to resolve.

4.What is the most common reason for contested divorces?

Disputes over child custody arrangements and parenting plans are the most prevalent cause of contested divorce proceedings. Custody battles are emotionally charged and can prolong finalization.

5.How much more does a contested divorce cost than an uncontested one?

An uncontested divorce may cost between $10,000-$15,000 total. Contested divorces average around $20,000 but can exceed $100,000 if complex asset valuations or custody evaluations are involved requiring expert testimonies.

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