This section walks you through the divorce process from start to finish. The purpose is to give you a general overview. You can click on links to more in-depth information on particular topics throughout this section. Special considerations may apply if you or your spouse are serving in the military, have filed a relief from abuse complaint, or have agreed on all issues before either of you files a divorce complaint (this is called a stipulated divorce).
When you file a divorce case in court you have to pay a filing fee (Select Family Division Fees, Filing for entry of divorce, annulment or dissolution of civil union or legal separation). The filing fee may be reduced or waived in the following cases:
- The filing fee is lower if at the outset you and your spouse file an agreement settling all matters. That agreement is called a stipulation. For information about how to file for a stipulated divorce, click here.
- If you receive public assistance, are on a fixed income, or have a low-paying job, you can ask the court to waive the filing fee by filing a form. The form is called an Application to Waive Filing Fees and Service Costs. If you qualify and the court approves your application, you won’t have to pay the fee. See the Application to Waive Filing Fees and Service Costs web page for more information.
You may have costs in connection with serving the documents on your spouse. If you have children, the court will serve the documents and you will have to pay a fee for that. You can ask to waive service fees as part of the Application to Waive Filing Fees and Service Costs.
If you have children, you will be required to take a course about parenting and divorce. There is a fee for this course.
Several timing issues come into play in a divorce.
- Residency: To file for divorce, you or your spouse must have been a resident of Vermont for six months. One of you must have lived continuously in Vermont for at least a year before the final divorce hearing can be held.
- Grounds for divorce: Vermont allows a no-fault divorce. That requires that you and your spouse live separate and apart for at least six consecutive months and that you are not likely to get back together. There are other grounds for divorce, but this is the most common.
- You can file for divorce before you separate, as you are separating, or after you separate. You can't have a final divorce hearing until you've been separated for six months.
- Living separate and apart means not living as a couple. It is possible to do this while living in the same home. You need to sleep in separate rooms and keep your households separate. If you do that, a court may conclude that you have been living separate and apart. You may want to talk to a lawyer if you are considering living in the same home as your spouse during the divorce process. Living together while you are going through a divorce can be very difficult for you and your children.
- Minor children: If you have minor children, the court usually won't schedule a final divorce hearing until six months after the divorce starts. Sometimes a judge may allow a final divorce sooner than that. It may happen if you have had a stable and effective parenting agreement for at least six months.
The six-month separation period for a no-fault divorce and the six-month parenting period for couples with kids can run at the same time.
People often assume that after the final hearing they will be divorced; this is not true. There is a three-month waiting period after the final hearing before the divorce is final. This is called a nisi period. The judge may shorten or waive the nisi period if you both agree to do that. At the end of this period, your divorce will automatically become final. You won't get any more orders or communications from the court.
If you have minor children, your divorce will usually take at least six months. If you don’t have minor children, it’s possible to get through the process more quickly. That could happen if you separated before either party filed for divorce.
The most important factor is how much you and your spouse agree. Things will go faster if the two of you can agree on as much as possible. That includes decisions about parenting, support, debt payment, property division, and other issues. If you ask a judge to decide these issues for you, the divorce will likely take much longer.
Completing the Divorce Complaint
The spouse who starts the divorce by filing papers with the court is called the plaintiff. The spouse who receives the papers is the defendant. Whether you are the plaintiff or the defendant does not affect the outcome of your case.
The main form you file to start a divorce case is called a complaint. There are two ways you can fill out a divorce complaint.
- You can get paper versions of the court forms you need and fill them out by hand.
- You can complete forms online and print them out when you are done. There are separate forms and instructions for filing for divorce with children and divorce without children. If you need help getting these forms, you can call or go to your local family court.
The complaint asks for information about you, your spouse, your children, and your marriage. You need to know when and where you were married. Most people ask for a no-fault divorce. If you do that, you need to state the date you and your spouse separated.
The complaint is not the only form you have to fill out. If you have children, you should complete the following:
- Combined Summons, Complaint for Divorce, Notice of Appearance, and Affidavit of Child Custody
- Information sheet with basic information about yourself
- Health Department information
- First page of the Child Support Order form
- Income and Expense Affidavit
- Property and Assets Affidavit
If you do not have minor children, you should fill out the following:
- Combined Summons, Complaint for Divorce, and Notice of Appearance
- Information sheet with basic information about yourself
- Health Department information
You may also have to fill out the Income and Expense and Property and Assets affidavits if your spouse requests them or the court orders you to do that:
The financial affidavits take some time to complete. It’s important to fill them out accurately. You and your spouse must each fill out your own set. You should share family financial records such as investments, monthly bills, car loan papers, tax returns, and credit card debt so that you each have an accurate picture of your family’s finances. You can find more instructions for filling out the financial affidavits online.
If you are afraid for your safety, you can file a motion, asking the court to keep your address confidential from your spouse. Your motion must be accompanied by an affidavit, describing the facts or events that support your request.
Filing and Serving the Forms
Filing the Forms
You will be required to pay a filing fee (select Family Division Fees, Filing for entry of divorce, annulment, or dissolution of civil union or legal separation). If you can't afford the filing fees, you can ask the court to consider waiving them. See the Application to Waive Filing Fees and Service Costs web page for more information and forms.
Be sure to keep a copy of everything you file with the court.
Serving Your Spouse
The next step is to serve your spouse the papers. There are rules about how to do this. The process may be different if you and your spouse have minor children. See the Serving Papers web page for more information.
If you or the court arranges to serve your spouse by mail or by sheriff, you may want to consider letting your spouse know. Whether that is a good idea will depend on your circumstances.
If your spouse starts the divorce case by filing a complaint, then your spouse is the plaintiff. You are the defendant. Whether you are the plaintiff or defendant does not affect the outcome of your case.
Signing one of these does not mean that you agree to anything in the papers. It just means that you received them.
You don't have to sign an acceptance or acknowledgment. But if you don’t, the court may later make you pay the costs of having you served by the sheriff.
Preparing an Answer
Once you have received a summons and complaint for divorce, you will have 21 days to file an answer with the court. The 21 days start on the date the sheriff serves you, the date you sign an acceptance or acknowledgment, or the date you sign for the papers at the post office. If you need more time to file your answer, you can make a written request to the court for more time. You should tell the court why you need more time. For example, if you can't get an appointment with a lawyer sooner than 21 days, you can explain that.
Your answer tells the court that you want to participate in the case. If you are representing yourself, you will tell this to the court in your answer.
There are two ways you can fill out an answer:
- You can get the answer form from the court and fill it out by hand.
- You can complete the answer form online and print it out when you are done. There are different answer forms for a divorce with children and a divorce without minor children. The numbered statements in the answer correspond to statements in the complaint form. Check the box indicating whether you agree with each statement in the complaint. If you disagree, you can write in what you believe to be true.
- If the complaint isn't written on the court form, you should go through each statement in the complaint and state whether you agree, disagree, or don't know whether it is true.
The answer form includes a section to make an optional counterclaim. A counterclaim is a lawsuit filed by the defendant against the plaintiff in the original case.
There is no fee to file a counterclaim in a divorce, legal separation or civil union dissolution case.
There are several reasons why you might want to make a counterclaim:
- There are things you want to ask for as part of the divorce which weren’t included in the plaintiff’s complaint. For example, you want to be restored to the name you had before you got married, but the plaintiff did not include that in their complaint.
- You not only disagree with some of the things the plaintiff asked for in the complaint, you want to ask for something different. For example, the plaintiff asked for sole parental rights and responsibilities of your children. You can use the counterclaim to ask for shared parental rights and responsibilities.
- You are concerned the plaintiff will change their mind about the divorce and ask to dismiss the case. If you file a counterclaim, the case will not be dismissed because of their request to dismiss.
- You are concerned the plaintiff will not follow through with the steps in the case, and the case will be dismissed because of inactivity. If you file a counterclaim you can keep the case moving.
There may be other reasons. Talk to an attorney if you have questions about whether you should make a counterclaim. See the Finding Legal Help web page for information about the ways to get the help of an attorney.
A counterclaim is usually filed at the same time as your answer – within 21 days of being served with the complaint. It is possible to ask permission to file a counterclaim after the deadline has passed. Use the Miscellaneous Motion (form 400-00830) to make your request. You can find the form in the Forms section of the Divorce web page, under Miscellaneous.
If You Do Not File an Answer
It is very important for you to file an answer to the complaint. If you don't, the court can enter a default judgment against you. A default judgment is a decision made by the court without your input or participation. The order can involve your property, responsibility for debts, and other financial matters. If you have children, the order may determine where your children live and how much time they spend with each parent. The court can also order you to pay child support.
If you don't file an answer but show up for a scheduled court hearing, you will be allowed to participate. You will need to file with the court a Notice of Appearance form. This tells the court how to contact you and where to send you information about your case. Anytime your contact information changes, you must notify the court and the other party by completing Notice of Name Change or Change of Address form and sending a copy to the court and to your spouse:
If you do not update your information, you may miss important hearings because the notice was sent to your old address. If you file a Notice of Appearance or appear for a court hearing before the final hearing, the court will allow you to participate. But you should not delay in filing papers to let the court know you want to participate.
Filing and Serving the Answer and Counterclaim
You must file your answer with the court. See the Filing Procedures web page for more information about filing options.
You must also serve the papers on your spouse. This is true for every document you file with the court in the case. If your spouse is represented by a lawyer, you must serve papers you file on the lawyer. To prove that you have served the people you are required to serve, you must file a Certificate of Service with every paper you file in court:
The Certificate of Service must:
- Certify that the document has been given to every party
- State how it was given (e.g., mail or personal delivery)
- State the name and address of each person or entity served
- State the date of the mailing or others means of delivery
After the complaint is filed and the papers are served, you and your spouse will start getting notices and orders from the court. Read these carefully and follow the instructions. Do not ignore a court order.
You may receive one or more orders the court often issues at the beginning of a case.
Interim Domestic Order
Be sure to read the Interim Domestic Order carefully. It includes many provisions that apply in every case.
- If you have children, it prohibits you from relocating them outside Vermont, and makes it clear that you must not encourage them to take sides in the divorce.
- It prohibits you both from harassing each other.
- It prohibits you both from selling, borrowing against, or hiding property or investments.
- It prohibits you both from canceling or changing beneficiaries on your insurance without the other’s written permission.
- It requires you both to keep paying bills and not to run up unreasonable debt.
- It requires you to forward your spouse’s personal mail and to share joint mail with your spouse.
Order Regarding Parenting Course
If you and your spouse have minor children together, you both must attend a parenting course called Helping Children Cope With Separation and Divorce (COPE). You can choose the time and place that best fits your schedule. The COPE course gives you information to help you and your kids deal with the changes to your family relationships. The sooner you attend the course, the better informed you will be.
Order Regarding Self-Represented Litigant Education
Most courts require you to attend a one-and-a-half-hour course to help you represent yourself. The course is usually offered at the courthouse. Volunteer lawyers generally provide the education. The sooner you attend, the better informed you will be. This course will help you represent yourself more effectively.
Notice to Attend Case Manager Conference
You will also receive a notice to attend a case manager conference. This is a meeting with your spouse and a case manager at the courthouse. If the Office of Child Support (OCS) is a party to the case, a representative from OCS will also attend the conference on behalf of the State of Vermont regarding child support only. This conference is usually held four to eight weeks after the divorce is filed. Use the time before that to fill out your financial forms and gather the financial records that you are required to bring to the conference. You must bring copies of all of these documents for the court, the other party, and OCS if they are a party. Always keep a copy for yourself. If you have children, you should also consider what parenting plan is best for your children.
Usually, the first court event is a case manager conference. The judge won’t be there. A case manager will run the conference with you and your spouse. The purpose is to figure out what you two can agree to, and what issues you will be asking the judge or magistrate to decide. The case manager will help you.
If you have children, you will talk about these things:
- Parental rights and responsibilities (sometimes called custody)
- Parent–child contact (sometimes called visitation)
- Child support
- Health insurance
Whether or not you have children, the case manager may talk with you about your assets and debts, the home you and your spouse own, and your income. Be sure to bring your financial information, particularly information about bank accounts, income, child care costs, and health insurance.
Parental Rights and Responsibilities and Parent–Child Contact
If you have a child (or children), the most important goal is to try to reach an agreement that will meet your child’s needs. Your child’s best interests are critically important. If you and your spouse haven’t reached an agreement before the conference, you should use the conference to try to come up with a plan that is best for your child. In particular, you will need to reach an agreement on the following matters:
- What’s the best schedule for your child in terms of the time your child spends with each of you?
- How should vacations and holidays be handled, given your child’s needs and where each of you live?
- Should the schedule change as your child gets older?
- How will the child get back and forth between the two households?
- Who should be responsible for the day-to-day care of and decisions about your child? This is called physical parental rights and responsibilities.
- Who should be responsible for the major decisions about things such as medical care, religious upbringing, and education? This is called legal parental rights and responsibilities.
- Should these responsibilities be shared, or primarily held by one parent? You can agree to share legal rights and responsibilities, physical rights and responsibilities, or both. And you can come up with a schedule for your child to spend time with both of you in a way that best meets the child’s needs. The court cannot order shared custody unless you both agree.
You can find more information about parental rights and responsibilities and parent–child contact here.
If you have a child (or children), the case manager will also address child support and health insurance for your child. You should come to the conference with information about the cost of including your child on your health insurance plan if one is available through your employment, even if you are not currently enrolled.
Your child support is based on a computer model that considers the following:
- Each of your gross monthly income or earning capacity
- What each of you pays for health insurance and day care for your child
- How many nights the child spends with each of you
- Whether the child has special needs and expenses
The computer calculates a child support guideline amount to be paid by one of you. The person who pays, called the obligor, is usually the parent who has less time with the child or who makes more money. This guideline amount is legally presumed to be the amount to be paid. You and your spouse may not just pick a figure and hope the court will agree. If the court finds that the guideline amount is unreasonable or unfair, it can deviate from this amount and order support at a different level. You can find more information about child support here.
After parental issues are decided, or if you have no minor children, the case manager may talk with you about the following:
- Who will live in the home during (or even after) the divorce
- Whether either of you will pay the other temporary (or longer-term) spousal support
- How you will divide your property
- How you will divide debts and bills
The case manager will help you write up your agreements about such issues. Keep in mind, though, that you should never agree to anything you are not comfortable with.
You and your children, if you have any, will be better off if you can reach an agreement for many reasons, including these:
- You and your spouse know more about your child, your finances, and your property than a judge ever will. You are in a better position to find fair and practical solutions to the issues in your divorce.
- Most people would rather make their own major life decisions.
- If you have children, the two of you will have to work together to parent your children through the rest of their lives.
- You and your spouse are more likely to follow the court order if you have agreed to it together.
If either you or your spouse is going through a job change, or is uncertain of future income, you can enter into a temporary child support order. The court will review the order at the final divorce hearing if you both have still not agreed to a final order.
If you run out of time but think you may be able to agree on more issues, the court can schedule a second case manager conference. If you have any questions or concerns, bring them up with the case manager.
If there is domestic abuse in the relationship, tell the case manager before the first conference. The case manager can help come up with a way to communicate—such as texting or using a third party—to keep you safe.
The more prepared you are for the case manager conference, the more progress you can make. Sometimes, people just can’t talk to each other. But if you can, try to talk with each other before the conference to see if you can work out at least some issues. You don’t need to work everything out. If you disagree about something, just make a note of it and let the case manager know.
You can agree to a temporary or final order. A temporary order applies until the court issues an order after a final hearing, or until you and your spouse file a final agreement that is approved by the court.
Many divorcing couples are able to work out parenting schedules and child support with the help of the case manager. When they do, the court reviews the agreement within a few days and signs it. That turns your agreement into a court order. Court orders stay in effect until the court issues new orders.
Sometimes you need a third party to help you come up with agreements. Mediation offers a structure for communicating at a time when working together is often difficult. Mediators do not decide who is right or wrong. A skilled mediator can help you find practical solutions.
Mediation is less formal and more private than a public hearing in court. Parents who have made agreements in their divorce by using a mediator have reported greater satisfaction than parents who have had the court make decisions for them.
The Family Mediation Program provides subsidized mediation services to qualifying people. See the Family Mediation Program web page for more information about the program and for a list of family court mediators.
Sometimes parents can’t agree on important issues that need to be decided before the final divorce hearing. When that happens, the court will decide. The case manager refers disputes to the child support magistrate, the family court judge, or both. In some cases, you may file a motion on your own to ask the court to take some action. The magistrate or judge (or both) will hold hearings at a later date.
The kinds of issues that you may need the court to decide on a temporary basis until the final hearing include:
- Where your child will live
- How much child support will be paid
- Who will live in the house until the final divorce hearing
- Who will pay the mortgage, property taxes, credit card bills, or other bills
- Whether either party will pay temporary support (alimony) to the other
If you can't work things out, you can ask the court for help. To do that, you must file a motion. A motion is a written request for the court to take some action. For example, if your spouse is refusing to share financial information that you are entitled to see, you can file a motion asking the court to order your spouse to share the information. You can use a motion form to explain the problem and ask the court to take action:
Whenever you file a motion with the court, you must send a copy to your spouse or your spouse's attorney. If the Office of Child Support (OCS) is involved, you should send a copy to OCS. To prove that you have sent the motion to everyone you are supposed to send it to, you must file a Certificate of Service with the court:
Be sure to keep a copy of everything you file.
Unless your motion involves an emergency, your spouse has 15 days to respond to it. You can use an affidavit form for objecting to a motion or to respond to a motion filed by your spouse:
In some cases the judge will decide on a motion without a hearing. In other cases the judge may decide to have a hearing. If the case is set for a hearing, a Notice of Hearing will be sent to the parties or their attorneys.
If you have a court hearing, consider hiring a lawyer to represent you. Lawyers can represent you on all issues or on just some issues (which is known as a limited appearance). Even if not representing you in court, a lawyer may be able to help you organize your information to better prepare for the hearing. You can find general information about going to court here.
After your temporary hearing, the court will issue an order deciding the issues you raised. That may be an oral or written order at the hearing, or a written order after the hearing. The court's orders are usually temporary. That means that they stay in effect until the court issues another order. Sometimes temporary decisions are changed in the final order. For example, the court may decide who gets to live in the home while the divorce is pending, but it will not decide who gets to keep the home after the divorce.
If you agree on all of the terms of your divorce, you put them in a written document called a stipulation. You can get a final stipulation form online here or at the courthouse. If you have children, you also must file a Final Stipulation Concerning Your Parenting Plan:
You may need to update your child support order if your financial circumstances have changed. If the parenting agreement and child support agreement you previously made are working well, you can use those in your final stipulation. Your agreement should address all of the issues between you, including these:
- Who will live in the home. If you own it, you need to decide whether it will be sold, how the proceeds or debt will be split, and who will be responsible for expenses in the meantime.
- Who will get what assets. This includes bank accounts, personal property, retirement accounts, cars and trucks, and valued possessions.
- Who will take on which debts, including credit card debts. Bear in mind that even if one of you agrees to take the debt, if it is a joint debt, the creditor may still go after both of you.
- Whether either of you will pay spousal maintenance to the other. Spousal maintenance is also called spousal support, and is sometimes called alimony.
You can find more information about these financial issues here.
You must also address all of the issues involving your child, including these:
- Legal responsibility: Who will make major decisions about medical issues, education, and religious upbringing
- Physical responsibility: Where will the child live
- Parent–child contact: How much time will the child spend with each parent
- Child support: How child support is determined
You can find information about parental rights and responsibilities and parent–child contact here, and information about child support here. Before the court can schedule a final uncontested hearing, you and your spouse must also review your child support calculations to make sure the child support payment is still accurate. If your child support amount should be changed (because one of you got a raise or left your job, or your parenting arrangement has changed), then you should complete new financial affidavits and ask for a new child support order.
If you adopted your spouse's last name or used another married name, and you plan to resume using your former last name, you should put that in the final stipulation as well. Having a court order indicating that you will be resuming your prior name will make it easier to change your identifying documents.
You should read all of this information before signing a final agreement. If you do reach an agreement, you should both sign it and file it with the court. The court will then schedule a final uncontested hearing.
Final Uncontested Hearing
If you and your spouse have agreed to everything, then you can have a final uncontested hearing. This should be relatively simple. You need to tell the judge that
- you or your spouse have lived in Vermont for one year,
- one of you lived in the county when you filed for divorce,
- you and your spouse have lived separate and apart for at least six months and there is no possibility that you will get back together, and
- you and your spouse have voluntarily agreed to a final order that is acceptable to both of you.
Usually, the judge guides the process by asking questions such as these:
- Where are you and your spouse living?
- How long have you lived there?
- Where were you living at the time you or your spouse filed for divorce?
- How long have you lived in Vermont?
- When and where were you and your spouse married?
- Have the two of you lived separate and apart for six consecutive months?
- Is there any chance that the two of you will get back together as spouses?
- Have you signed the final stipulation freely and voluntarily?
- Do you believe that what you have agreed on is fair to both of you?
If you have a child (or children), and you are asking the court to give you and your spouse shared parental rights and responsibilities, you also need to tell the judge how the two of you have been able to communicate with each other regarding your child since you separated.
Usually, the court will sign a final order on the day of the final uncontested hearing. Both you and your spouse must then sign an Acceptance of Service of this final order:
The clerk's office has Acceptance of Service forms. You should both sign the form and give it to the clerk before you leave court that day.
If your spouse does not sign the Acceptance of Service in court, or if your spouse does not come to court on the day of the final uncontested hearing, you will have to serve your spouse with the final order. You can start by sending your spouse a copy of the final order with an Acceptance of Service form . If your spouse does not sign and return this, you may have to have the sheriff serve the order. You cannot enforce the order unless you can prove that your spouse received it.
Remember that there is a 90-day waiting period after the final hearing before the divorce is final. This is called a nisi period. The judge may shorten or waive the nisi period if you both agree to do that. At the end of this period, your divorce will automatically become final. You won't get any more orders or communications from the court.
Final Contested Hearing
If you cannot agree on all of the matters you have to resolve in your divorce, the court will schedule a final contested hearing. If you have child support issues and other issues, you may have two hearings: one with the child support magistrate, and one with the judge who decides all of the other issues. You may have to wait for many weeks or even months for a hearing date with the court.
At the final hearing, the judge will listen to both of you and any witnesses you have, consider any exhibits admitted, and make a final decision on issues you have not been able to agree on. In a divorce, there are sometimes two or three judges sitting behind the bench. The one in the middle is usually a Superior Court judge. One or two elected assistant judges may also participate. They help the Superior Court judge decide the facts but not the outcome. Only the Superior Court judge can make the final decision.
For this hearing, the judge must follow legal rules of procedure. For that reason, a contested hearing can be complicated. You should consider hiring a lawyer to represent you. Even if you don't hire a lawyer to represent you in court, meeting with a lawyer can help you better prepare for a hearing.
If you do represent yourself, learn as much as you can about the issues you will be asking the judge to decide. You can find lots of information on this website, including information about:
You should also read about going to court.
If you adopted your spouse's last name or another married name, and you plan to resume using your former last name, you should tell the court at this hearing. Having a court order indicating that you will be resuming your prior name will make it easier to change your identifying documents.
If you want to appeal a final divorce judgment, you must file your Notice of Appeal within 30 days of the judgment. You can read about the process of appealing to the Supreme Court here.
Bear in mind that the Supreme Court will not hear new evidence. Instead, it relies on the documents filed in the trial court. It generally focuses on the transcripts from your final hearing and the exhibits admitted at that hearing. Also, the Supreme Court will not reverse the trial judge's decision because the trial judge believed witnesses that you do not think the trial judge should have believed.
Instead, the Supreme Court will consider whether the trial court made any legal errors. Here are the most common legal errors:
- The trial court did not follow the correct procedure.
- The trial court did not apply the law correctly to the facts of the case.
Appealing to the Vermont Supreme Court can be complicated. You should consider talking to a lawyer.