Will you be able to afford an attorney if you get divorced? If not, know you’re not alone.

The time has come. Your marriage has broken down. Maybe (hopefully) you have tried to fix it and make it work, but whatever the reason you’re ready.

You’re ready to file for divorce.

The first thing you need to know is that the specific procedure for how to file for divorce differs from state to state. But, no matter where you live, the first document you file to start formal divorce proceedings is the Complaint for Divorce. The Complaint is also referred to (in lawyer talk) as a pleading. Typically, there are two pleadings in a divorce case, the Complaint and the Answer, or Answer/Counterclaim. This article will focus on the Complaint.

What Is A Complaint For Divorce?

The Complaint is a document that starts the divorce process and puts your case on the court’s docket. Docket is another legal term for calendar. The court keeps a calendar of all its cases and that’s how it keeps track of everything. Each case is assigned a specific docket number and that number is on every paper filed with the court in your case. That’s the number the court uses to identify your case.

The Complaint follows a specific format.

If you’re representing yourself, courts will provide you with a form to fill out. Lawyers follow a standard format that is usually much more detailed, but you can learn how to do that too.

You know why you are getting divorced. You have to tell the court the reason in the Complaint. Although you have to give a reason why you are getting divorced, the court really doesn’t care why. It’s just a formality. The reason why you are filing for divorce is known as the “cause of action.”

Most states have adopted what is refereed to as a “no fault” cause of action called “Irreconcilable Differences.” Basically, this means that the marriage didn’t work out and you want a divorce. It doesn’t get into the why. In addition to Irreconcilable Differences, there are other causes of action you could put in your Complaint.

For example, in New Jersey, you can file for divorce under Adultery, or Extreme Cruelty. While these are viable reasons to get divorced, they require additional evidence and proofs. There is no advantage to filing under one cause of action over the other. Most people file and most attorneys advise clients to file under Irreconcilable Differences because it’s the easiest and remember:


Why would you make more work for yourself? If you have an attorney, you are making more work for them, which means more money spent by you on your attorney.

Just saying…

You Can’t Just Get Divorced Anywhere

You can’t just decide to get divorced. Well, you can decide that’s what you want, but you can’t just go to the courthouse and file the Complaint. You have to meet certain requirements first. These differ from state to state so make sure to check the jurisdictional requirements where you live.

For example, in New Jersey you have to have lived in the state for at least one year before you can file for divorce. New Jersey wants to make sure the people getting divorced in its state are residents.  Another requirement is that you need to know the location of your spouse and where they are currently residing. The reason for this is once the Complaint is filed, you will have to serve it on your spouse.

There are separate requirements for serving a Complaint that I will discuss in another article, but make sure you research this procedure in your state before you do it yourself.

What Relief Are You Seeking?

The other main part of a Complaint for divorce is about relief. In other words, it’s clear you want a divorce, but as part of that process, what relief do you want as part of the resolution. Examples of types of relief commonly requested are alimony, custody, and division of the assets. You don’t get too specific about the relief in the Complaint. It’s just something to put your spouse on notice that you will be seeking it. For example, if you are requesting alimony, you would say something like “request spousal support” or “request alimony” in the area of the Complaint where you ask for the relief you want. You wouldn’t say how much alimony you want. That comes later in the process.

I may sound like a broken record, but please research the specific law and procedure in your state before taking action. Your state may require you to put a specific request for relief (such as the amount of alimony you’re seeking) in the Complaint. What I’m talking about are general guidelines that most states follow.

Remember, the Complaint is not the end-all be-all of the divorce process. The purpose is to formally start your case with the court and get on the court’s docket, i.e. radar. You have to fulfill certain formalities, such as stating the cause (reason) why you want to file for divorce and what relief you want at the end of the process. The details come later.

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