A dissolution of marriage is a legal process that terminates the marital rights and responsibilities between spouses. It will substantially affect your financial and personal life. Issues commonly involved in a dissolution case are grounds for dissolution, classification and division of assets of the spouses, ongoing obligations to provide for a spouse after dissolution, the welfare of any children of the marriage, and tax consequences. These materials are intended for uncontested matters without complex issues.
1. Starting the case: the Petition
The spouse who starts the dissolution case is called the petitioner. The spouse on the other side is called the respondent. The petitioner has to tell the court in a written "petition" what the case is about, who the case is against, and what outcome (known as relief) is wanted. This typically includes a request for dissolution along with the division of property, child custody, and child support. The "petition" must be complete and include certain information required by law. A form 'Petition for Dissolution of Marriage' will be available from this website after you have completed the Litigant Awareness Program.
2. How is the case filed?
The petition must be verified before it can be filed. The petitioner must swear to or affirm the truth of the facts in the petition and sign the petition under oath before a notary public. Most banks have notaries that will do this for a small fee.
A Dissolution of Marriage proceeding should be filed in the county in which either the petitioner or respondent resides. Filing fees vary depending on the type of case. The clerk at your local courthouse can tell you how much it will cost to file. Some courts post this information online. If a person cannot afford the court filing fee, an application can be filed asking that the fees be waived. This is sometimes called In Forma Pauperis (in the manner of a poor person). The court will require detailed financial information so that the judge can decide if fees should be waived.
3. What forms need to be filed?
In addition to the petition, there are other forms that must be filed. These forms usually include an 'Income and Expense Statement,' a 'Statement of Property and Debt,' a 'Parenting Plan' if children are involved, a 'Filing Information Sheet,' a 'Certificate of Dissolution,' and a proposed 'Judgment of Dissolution of Marriage.' These forms are available for download from this site at the conclusion of this Litigant Awareness Program. Individual courts may have other versions of these forms that they utilize. You should check with your local court prior to filing your case.
4. What if my spouse gave birth to a child while we were married, but I am not the biological parent of the child?
Under Missouri law, when a child is born to a woman while she is married or within 300 days after the termination of marriage, her spouse is presumed to be the legal father. A petition may be filed asking the court to find that the spouse is not the biological father or legal parent of the child or children born during the marriage. The Presumed Father's Petition for Declaration of Non-Paternity is an approved form for this purpose.
5. How is the other spouse notified about the filing of the case?
When the dissolution petition is filed, the petitioner must provide the other side, the respondent, with official notice. This is called service of process. Service is very important and must be done correctly. Doing it incorrectly will cause not only delay of your case, but MAY cause dismissal of your case. For a fee, the court clerk prepares a "summons" and attaches a copy of the petition, which becomes the official notice to come to court. Service of the summons is arranged through the court clerk. The most common methods of "service" are listed below:
- Waiver of Personal Service: The respondent accepts the petition and signs a form called “Entry of Appearance and Waiver of Service.” This form must be signed before a notary public and filed with the court.
- Personal Service: The sheriff or other court officer hand delivers the petition and the summons to the respondent. It is important to provide the court with very specific information about where, how, and when to find the respondent.
- Private or Special Process Server: A special or private process server may be appointed by the court when the respondent is difficult to find or if the respondent is trying to avoid being served. This is a situation where you may need to consult with an attorney who will know how to help you.
- Service by Publication: THIS METHOD CAN BE USED ONLY WHEN THE LOCATION OF THE RESPONDENT CANNOT BE DISCOVERED. This method of service also requires that all means to try to locate or reach the other party have been attempted. Permission of the court is required. Obtain specific information from the court about which qualified newspapers are acceptable for service by publication once the court approves your motion to allow this method. Check with a lawyer before doing service by publication because this method of service can affect and/or restrict you from collecting maintenance or child support.
6. What happens when the respondent is served?
Once the respondent receives the summons and petition, a written response is due in 30 days. The respondent files a written response to tell his or her side of the story. This is called the Answer. If this Answer is not received within 30 days, the respondent is in default. This means the petitioner can go to court and ask for the relief requested in the petition.
7. Do we have to agree on everything?
Agreement of both spouses about all the issues means the case is “uncontested.” The case usually will be completed faster and less expensively. Spouses in agreement still must go to court to show that they meet the legal requirements for a dissolution and to obtain the court’s approval. If the spouses cannot agree about all issues, the case is "contested." The fastest and least expensive way to resolve disputes is to try to work out the issues with the other party in advance. Mediation is a process frequently used by spouses to determine what they can agree upon. Some courts require you to attend mediation, particularly if there are unresolved parenting issues. The mediation requirement may be waived for good cause such as domestic violence. If you are not able to work out your differences, you should contact an attorney.
8. Can I contact the judge assigned to my case if I have questions or concerns?
No! Judges must be fair to all parties and therefore may not speak to or otherwise communicate in any way with the parties outside of a hearing. The court clerk can assist you by providing you with information about court procedure and approved forms but is restricted by court rules from telling you how to fill in forms or present your case. (See Court Staff Assistance.)
9. When is the case ready for a hearing?
The petition and other required forms must be filed with the court before your hearing. The return of summons must be on file with the court showing that the respondent has been served if the respondent has not waived service or filed an answer. CHECK BEFORE THE HEARING TO MAKE SURE THIS HAS BEEN DONE. Lack of service may cause delay. A person representing himself or herself in a family case must complete the Litigant Awareness Program and file the Certificate of Completion with the court (print the certificate at the end of this program). If there are children under the age of 18, both spouses must attend a parent education program, which is mandatory under state law. Schedules of these classes offered through your local court may be available online.
10. How is the hearing scheduled?
In Missouri, the circuit court keeps its schedule of hearings, called the "docket." Some circuits require a pretrial hearing, case management, or settlement conference before the final hearing. In some circuits, a litigant will not be placed on the docket automatically, but will need to request a hearing to get on the docket. You should check with your local court for the applicable procedure.
11. What happens at the hearing?
The petitioner has the responsibility of presenting evidence to prove the case. This may include the testimony of the spouses, other witnesses, documents, and exhibits. The respondent also may introduce evidence. After hearing all the evidence, the judge decides the case. The judge cannot try the case for the parties. Each party should come to court prepared with the list of questions and evidence they need to submit for the case. After the judge hears the evidence the ruling may be given verbally. Occasionally, a judge "takes a case under advisement" to make a ruling at a later time. The court will notify you of the decision. The decision of the court is reduced to writing in a form called "the judgment." The court may require a party to prepare the judgment in advance or after the conclusion of the hearing.
12. Can I try to settle my case before the hearing?
Even after legal proceedings are initiated, parties can settle their differences before the hearing. Most cases do settle out of court. It is better for everyone when parties agree. Mediation is always available at any time throughout the legal process and highly recommended. The family court judge/commissioner can and many times will appoint a mediator, particularly if parents can't agree about how the children will be cared for and how the parents will share their parenting responsibilities.
13. What needs to be done after the hearing?
The case will conclude with a written order from the judge. You must do all the things the judge ordered you to do in the dissolution of judgment, such as:
- Sign documents,
- Pay money, and/or
- Change names on automobile titles, insurance policies, bank accounts, retirement accounts, credit card accounts, and deeds.
If your dissolution judgment affected title to real estate (your home), you must file a certified copy of the dissolution judgment with the Recorder of Deeds. Also, you need to inform the appropriate government agencies, employers, creditors, and businesses of your dissolution and any name change. You also may need to provide "certified" copies of your dissolution judgment to others. The court clerk can certify copies of the judgment.
Failing to do what the judge ordered may result in additional court proceedings for enforcement of the judgment or for contempt of court. If your spouse fails to comply with the judge's orders, you will need to bring enforcement or contempt proceedings against your former spouse. This may be complex and may require the assistance of a lawyer.
14. When is the dissolution final?
The case becomes final 30 days after the judge signs the judgment unless a party files an appeal. If you need to file an appeal or if the other spouse files an appeal you will need the assistance of a lawyer. An appeal involves filing a legal brief about legal errors in the case. The procedural rule and time deadlines are very strict.
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