What Is a Contested Divorce?

What Is a Contested Divorce?

Divorce is rarely an easy process, but some separations are more challenging than others. When couples cannot agree on key issues such as property division, child custody, alimony, or other significant matters, their divorce becomes contested. A contested divorce can be a complex, lengthy, and emotionally taxing process, but understanding what it entails can help individuals navigate this difficult journey more effectively.

Understanding Contested Divorce

A contested divorce occurs when spouses cannot reach an agreement on one or more aspects of their separation. Unlike an uncontested divorce, where both parties agree on the terms and merely need the court’s approval, a contested divorce requires judicial intervention to resolve disputes. The disagreements can span various issues, including:

  • Property Division: Dividing marital assets and debts is often a major point of contention. This includes homes, vehicles, investments, retirement accounts, and personal property. Each spouse may have different views on what constitutes a fair division, leading to disputes.
  • Child Custody and Support: Determining who will have custody of the children and how much child support should be paid is another significant source of conflict. Both parents usually want what is best for their children, but they may have different ideas about what that entails.
  • Alimony: Also known as spousal support or maintenance, alimony involves payments from one spouse to the other to help maintain a similar standard of living post-divorce. The amount and duration of alimony can be contentious issues.
  • Other Financial Matters: This can include the division of debts, the family business, or other financial obligations and entitlements.

The Contested Divorce Process

According to experienced Orange County divorce lawyers at Wilkinson & Finkbeiner the contested divorce process typically follows several key steps, each of which can take varying amounts of time. The following steps are generally taken when filing a contested divorce and may take extended time depending on the complexity of the case and the level of conflict between the spouses.

  1. Filing for Divorce: One spouse (the petitioner) files a divorce petition with the court, stating the grounds for divorce and what they are seeking in terms of property division, custody, and support. The other spouse (the respondent) is then served with divorce papers.
  2. Response: The respondent must file a response to the petition, indicating their agreement or disagreement with the terms proposed by the petitioner. If they disagree, the divorce becomes contested.
  3. Discovery: During the discovery phase, both parties exchange information and documents relevant to the divorce. This can include financial records, property valuations, and any other evidence that may be used to support their case. Depositions and interrogatories may also occur during this phase.
  4. Negotiations and Mediation: Many jurisdictions require spouses to attempt mediation before proceeding to trial. Mediation involves a neutral third party who helps the couple try to reach a settlement agreement. While mediation can be successful in resolving some issues, it is not always effective, especially in highly contentious cases.
  5. Pre-Trial Hearings: If mediation fails, the case proceeds to pre-trial hearings, where preliminary matters are addressed. These hearings can involve temporary orders for child custody, support, and other interim issues until the final divorce decree is issued.
  6. Trial: During the trial, both parties present their arguments, evidence, and witness testimonies to a judge. Each spouse’s attorney will cross-examine witnesses and make legal arguments. The judge will then make decisions on the disputed issues based on the evidence presented.
  7. Judgment: After the trial, the judge issues a final divorce decree, which outlines the terms of the divorce, including property division, custody arrangements, support payments, and any other relevant orders. This judgment is legally binding and enforceable.

Challenges of Contested Divorce

Contested divorces are often more stressful and expensive than uncontested divorces. The legal fees, court costs, and other expenses can quickly add up, especially if the case goes to trial. Additionally, the emotional toll on both spouses and any children involved can be significant.


The prolonged nature of contested divorces can also create uncertainty and instability for everyone involved. The ongoing conflict can strain relationships, making it difficult for the family to move forward and adjust to their new circumstances.

Navigating a Contested Divorce

While contested divorces are challenging, there are ways to navigate the process more effectively:


  • Seek Professional Help: Hiring an experienced divorce attorney is crucial in a contested divorce. An attorney can provide valuable guidance, represent your interests, and help you understand your rights and options.
  • Consider Mediation and Collaboration: Even if initial attempts at mediation fail, continued efforts to negotiate and collaborate can sometimes lead to a settlement, saving time, money, and emotional energy.
  • Stay Organized and Prepared: Keep thorough records and documentation of all relevant information. Being organized can help you and your attorney build a strong case.
  • Focus on the Big Picture: It’s easy to get caught up in the details and emotions of a contested divorce, but try to stay focused on the long-term outcome. Prioritize the issues that matter most and be willing to compromise where possible.


In conclusion, a contested divorce can be a daunting process, but with the right approach and support, it is possible to navigate it successfully. Understanding the steps involved and being prepared for the challenges can help you achieve a fair resolution and move forward with your life.