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What is Divorce Law?

Divorce is the legal termination of the marital relationship. The divorce process is handled by family law attorneys (each estranged spouse retains his or her own counsel) and involves a number of issues, ranging from the division of property to child custody. While it's important to hire a lawyer who is skilled at your economic and other interests in a divorce, it is crucial to find an attorney with whom you feel comfortable on a personal level. Divorce is an intensely emotional process, requiring delicate people skills in addition to legal know-now.

Divorce in the United States is a matter of state rather than federal law. In recent years, however, more federal legislation has been enacted affecting the rights and responsibilities of divorcing spouses. The laws of the state(s) of residence at the time of divorce govern; all states recognize divorces granted by any other state through the principle of comity. All states impose a minimum time of residence. Typically, a county court’s family division judges petitions for dissolution of marriages.

Before the latter decades of the 20th century, a spouse seeking divorce had to show cause and even then might not be able to obtain a divorce. The legalization of no-fault divorce in the United States began in 1969 in California, pursuant to legislation signed by then-Governor Ronald Reagan and was completed in 2010, with New York being the last of the fifty states to legalize it.

Terms to Know

Custody: Having rights to your child. Custody can be either legal, which means that you have the right to make important decisions about your child's welfare, or physical, which means that the child lives with and is raised by you.

Prenuptial Agreement: An agreement made between a man and a woman before marrying in which they give up future rights to each other's property in the event of a divorce or death.

Stipulation: An agreement entered into by the divorcing spouses that settle the issues between them and is often entered into the court's final order or judgment and decree.

A decree of divorce will generally not be granted until all questions regarding child care and custody, a division of property and assets, and ongoing financial support is resolved.

.Due to the complex divorce procedures required in many places, some people seek divorces from other jurisdictions that have easier and quicker processes. Most of these places are commonly referred to negatively as "divorce mills." Reno, Nevada was for many years the iconic example of a US divorce mill.


Issues Involved in a Divorce

At its most basic, a divorce is a legal process by which two parties terminate their legal and financial relationship. But each divorce is unique and most involve disputes over things like child custody or division of property. Here are the main issues a divorce attorney deals with (see also, Checklist: Issues to Discuss with Your Divorce Attorney):


Division of Property: All property acquired by either spouse after the marriage date is considered "marital property" and is subject to equitable division. See FindLaw's Guide to Divorce and Property Division (PDF) to learn more.

Alimony: Alimony, or spousal support, is a monthly payment made by one spouse to another in accordance to either a settlement agreement or court order. Alimony is meant to correct for any unfair economic effects of a divorce. See FindLaw's Guide to Spousal Support (PDF) to learn more.

Child Support: Child support is a monthly payment made by the noncustodial parent to the custodial parent to be spent on the child's needs. See FindLaw's Guide to Getting Child Support (PDF) to learn more.

Child Custody: When a family splits up, the parents and the court must decide what is best for the minor children, including where they will live and how decisions are made. This is often the most difficult part of the divorce proceedings. See FindLaw's Guide to Child Custody (PDF) for more information.