The first step in the process (assuming you are not "pro se" or representing yourself), is to hire an attorney. Make sure you hire a lawyer who concentrates in the area of family law, divorce, domestic relations. You can expect to sit with the lawyer for at least an hour at the first meeting, known as the initial consultation. I do not charge for the first 30 minutes of the initial consultation. Thereafter, I charge $250/hour, pro-rated to the nearest 1/10 of an hour. I generally require a $3,500 retainer, sometimes more, sometimes less, depending on the complexity of the case. I always require a written fee agreement.
At the initial consultation, you are either going to be the one contemplating or filing for divorce (Petitioner) or getting sued (Respondent). It does not really matter whether you are the Petitioner or Respondent in terms of how the Court ultimately decides the issues. But sometimes there are strategic and/or tactical reasons to file first or to not file first. If you are the Respondent, there are certain deadlines you must meet, e.g., you or your attorney must file an Appearance, and/or an Answer and Cross-Petition for Divorce.
After you file for divorce, the Family court will send a 10-day letter to the other side. The other side (Respondent) will typically have 10 days to accept service at the courthouse. If the party fails to accept service, the Plaintiff must serve the other party by Sheriff. Couples who agree to get divorced and wish to avoid service, can file a Joint Petition for Divorce (both parties sign the petition). The fling fee is $250 without kids; and $252 with kids.
Once service is accomplished, the Court will schedule a First Appearance (for those with minor children) or a Status Conference (for those without children). The First Appearance is a non-adversarial meeting of all couples who have recently filed for divorce. A Marital Master or Judge addresses the parties in the courtroom and explains the process and urges people to work in the best interest of their children. The purpose of a Status Conference (for those without children) is for the Court to determine how close to settlement a case is, what the disputed issues are, what additional discovery must take place, and to determine scheduling issues, e.g., what sort of hearing should the Court schedule next - mediation, pretrial, final hearing. At the conclusion of the First Appearance (for those with kids), the case will be scheduled for Mediation. Prior to mediation, parties are required to exchange Financial Affidavits. And often, parties will have already engaged in discovery (propounded interrogatories, conducted depositions, etc.). Parties may participate in court-sanctioned mediation (with a court-appointed mediator) at the courthouse or private mediation (outside of court) with a privately retained mediator. Some parties participate in mediation before any paperwork is filed with the Court.
If an emergency arises (e.g. domestic violence, issues involving kids, or unresolved financial issues that if left unresolved may cause imminent harm), parties may file for ex parte (emergency) relief. Depending on the circumstances, a Court can grant emergency relief to one party or the other, and sometimes even without the knowledge of the other party.
If your case is not resolved in Mediation, the Court will schedule a final pretrial, and, ultimately, a trial in front of a judge. There are no juries in a divorce trial. The Judge will listen to the evidence from both sides and decide all the disputed issues - property, alimony, child support, parenting plan, etc. Once the Court issues a final order, parties have 30 days within which to appeal to the New Hampshire Supreme Court. The Supreme Court will either affirm the trial court, remand for further proceedings, or reverse the trial court.
An uncontested divorce (where parties agree on all issues) should not cost more than $1,500 (inclusive of fees) and typically takes less than 30 days from start to finish. Conversely, a contested case typically takes 8-12 months and can cost tens of thousands of dollars, depending on the complexity of the matter. In a contested case, parties often times hire appraisers, certified public accounts, psychologists, medical doctors, and other experts. If parenting (otherwise known as custody) is involved, a Guardian at Litem is often appointed to the case to make recommendations to the Court relative to parenting plans and contact schedules that are in the children's best interest.
Feel free to contact me in Kennebunk at (207) 467-3767 or Portsmouth at (603) 766-1970 to discuss your case in more detail.