This article is meant to give the reader a very general idea of the process of obtaining a divorce (dissolution of marriage) in Colorado. The basic rules are governed by statute and each district court has their own rules and procedures as well.
I. Starting the Case
The first step is to file a Petition for Dissolution. This can be filed by one or both parties. There is an advantage to filing together. If you file the case together, you are referred to as “Petitioner” and “Co-Petitioner.” Both parties sign the “Petition” and there is one filing fee that must be paid. When one person files the case, that person is called the “Petitioner” and the other person is called the “Respondent.” The “Petitioner” will then have to hire a process server to “serve” the “Respondent” and of course there is a fee for that. The “Respondent” then has to file a “Response” and pay a filing fee for that. If the two of you can file together, there is only one filing fee, no cost for a process server and there is no “Response” that needs to be filed with the Court. Sometimes there is no choice but the file the case and “serve” the other person.
II. Initial Status Conference
After you file your case, the Court will set up (or ask you to set up) the Initial Status Conference. This is required by statute. The Initial Status Conference usually occurs about a month after the case is filed. The purpose of the Initial Status Conference is to see if there are any urgent matters that a need to be addressed and to find out if each side has finished the required financial paperwork in the case. If the parties have minor children, the court will want to know if the parties have completed the mandatory parenting class yet. Some courts will give orders at the Initial Status Conference but most of them will not. Most courts will schedule a hearing if there are urgent matters that need to be addressed. Sometimes the Initial Status Conference is held before a court administrator who has no power and sometimes they are held before a magistrate or a judge.
III. Mandatory Disclosures
Colorado statutes require that every person in a divorce case, provide copies of certain financial information to the other side and that they also fill out a Sworn Financial Statement. It is critical that these “mandatory disclosures” be done as accurately and completely as possible. The paperwork for this portion of the is often overwhelming to people and this is the point at which many people hire attorneys. There are early deadlines for these “mandatory disclosures” and there are serious consequences for not completely them completely and/or on time.
IV. Temporary Orders Hearing
If there are issues that need to be resolved early on in the case, the Court may allow you to have a short hearing called a Temporary Orders Hearing. The court will take testimony, review your exhibits and then give a ruling. Sometimes they give their ruling right then and there and sometimes they “take it under advisement” and issue a written ruling on a later date. Some cases need a temporary orders hearing and some do not. In general, the courts in Colorado are so overloaded right now that your “Permanent Orders Hearing” (final hearing) could be months away. In some jurisdictions final hearings are even being set almost a year away. Therefore, if there are urgent issues regarding parenting time, child support, maintenance, or some other urgent issue, you may want a temporary orders hearing.
Most courts in Colorado require that the parties attend mediation before a “Permanent Orders Hearing.” Some District Courts require that the parties attend mediation even before a Temporary Orders Hearing. I have found that if you choose the right mediator for a case, there is a good chance of resolving at least some of the issues. This will save you a lot of money and emotional stress. There are very few times that mediation is not a good idea in a case. Each of the district courts around the Denver area have low cost mediators available. Sometimes I use them in my cases, however, most of the time I really prefer private mediators. I have found that the cost for a private mediator is not much more than the low cost mediators and the results are better. This is just my opinion of course based on my experience. Other attorneys I know like using the mediators at the courthouse.
VI. Emergency Orders
Many times I get phone calls from clients wanting an “emergency order” from the court. As I said earlier, the courts are overwhelmed with the number of cases they have and for the most part they are understaffed. Because of this, many judges do not even consider that a situation is an “emergency” unless a child is in danger. Your attorney will have a good idea of whether an emergency motion may be helpful in your case and whether the judge will likely look at it. It is really important to address issues as soon as they come up and not wait until they are emergencies because you never know if the judge will address them as an emergency. An example is school enrollment. Every July and August the courts are buried with motions regarding what school a child should attend and the motion is filed right before school starts. These sorts of motions should be filed as early as possible in a case to avoid the last minute emergency motion.
VII. Do-It-Yourself Paperwork
Colorado has a website that contains many common forms that you may find helpful if you try to proceed on your own without an attorney. A few of these forms may be similar to what your attorney may draft but most of these forms are very different from what your attorney would draft for you. For instance, if you reach a final agreement in your case, you will need a Separation Agreement (this covers the final provisions) and a Parenting Plan (this covers issues dealing with the children). The forms offered by the state are “bare bones” and I do not ever recommend using them unless you have absolutely no other choice. The Separation Agreement and Parenting Plan are probably the most important documents in your case and they must be drafted with care. I tell prospective clients that a big part of my practices comes from trying to “un-due” these do-it-yourself Separation Agreements and Parenting Plans months or years after the case is over. Some attorneys will offer “unbundled services” which means that you can hire them to just draft certain documents or help you in some other way in your case without having to retain them to fully represent you in the case. If you can’t afford to hire an attorney to represent you, consider, hiring one just to draft certain paperwork in the case such as the Separation Agreement and Parenting Plan.
VIII. Permanent Orders Hearing
If you cannot resolve your case, the court will give you a final hearing called a Permanent Orders Hearing. This hearing is quite formal and you need an attorney to represent you if that is at all possible for you. The longer of a hearing that you request, the longer your wait will be for a hearing. The judge will hear the testimony, review the exhibits and make a decision. Most often they send out a written order later and don’t give their order on the day of the hearing. If you don’t like the outcome of the hearing, sometimes you can file an appeal. There are very strict time rules for this, so if you don’t like the court order, consult with an attorney that does appellate work right away.
I hope this information has given you a general idea of how the divorce process works in Colorado. I always suggest consulting with at least one attorney before you file your case and if you can afford it, hire someone to represent you or at least draft some of the paperwork for you. The attorney you consult with should be able to give you some idea of what procedures are in place in the county in which you will be filing your case.