Understanding the Divorce Process in Tennessee

Trusted Knoxville family lawyers discuss the initial stages of a divorce

There are only limited ways to end a marriage: an agreement, a divorce trial or a settlement. Most people agree that a settlement is less traumatic and does less damage to everyone involved, especially children. Certainly it costs less than a trial, and very few divorces these days actually end in a trial because most couples are required to attempt mediation. Before a settlement is reached or a trial held, however, you must go through the divorce process.

Avoiding a lawsuit

Some parties reach agreements concerning the division of the property, debts and care of the children before filing the Complaint. In those instances, one party can waive the service of process that is discussed below.  This agreement, called a Marital Dissolution Agreement, must dispose of all property, debts and alimony or support issues. In addition, an agreement must be reached concerning any children under the age of 18 years. This is called a Permanent Parenting Plan, and it details where the children will spend time, how decisions concerning the children will be made, how they will be transported from household to household, who will provide medical insurance and how they will be supported. Children who are deemed permanently disabled have some flexibility within these laws – but that is another topic for another day.

Starting the legal process

In Tennessee, filing a “Complaint” begins the divorce lawsuit. The person who files for divorce first is Plaintiff. Sometimes this is called a Petition for Divorce. Tennessee requires that certain statistical information be disclosed in a Complaint for Divorce. In addition, the Clerk of Court issues a Summons. For a lawsuit to begin, both the Complaint and Summons must be served on the other party.

There are certain requirements for service of process that, if not met, can result in the divorce not being granted. Generally, a Sheriff’s Deputy or a private process server will serve the Complaint and Summons on the other party. A new way of serving process is by mail. A lawyer can mail another lawyer or an individual a lawsuit, and the individual receiving the lawsuit can sign a Waiver of Service of Process, acknowledging receipt of the lawsuit by mail. This can help keep down expenses. If the person receiving the Request for the Waiver of Service of Process refuses to accept service by mail and refuses to sign the waiver, the person seeking to serve the Complaint or Petition can ask the Court to assess the costs of the process server to the person refusing to sign the waiver of service.

Response by the Spouse

In most divorces, the recipient of the Complaint for Divorce (the Defendant or Respondent) will answer, and some will file a countersuit. The countersuit, called a Counter-complaint, is the same thing as a Complaint but against the Plaintiff. The Answer will frequently deny all allegations set out in the Complaint and ask that the Complaint be dismissed. The Counter-complaint will generally ask for a court ruling in his/her favor similar to that asked for by the Plaintiff.

With respect to grounds, most divorces allege either or both irreconcilable differences, and/or fault grounds, most often inappropriate marital conduct. Even though a Complaint may contain an allegation of inappropriate marital conduct, fault does not become a central issue in the case and often it does not mean that the granting of a divorce will be contested. As with other aspects of the Complaint, there are legal reasons for including certain allegations and requests for relief from the Court which may or may not have a likelihood of success. For example, a parent who files for divorce realistically may not be seeking custody of a child but may request in the Complaint for Divorce that a child support payment be paid by the other parent. In almost all Complaints and Counter-complaints, lawyers include requests every possible remedy even if the requested relief is not realistic. This is not an attempt to intimidate or embarrass the other party publicly but is routine, just in case later in time, circumstances change.

When a Complaint is filed, if a party alleges fault grounds a temporary injunction is issued automatically without independent judicial approval. This “Automatic Injunction” addresses several topics, including preventing the sale or transfer of certain assets, stopping the canceling of insurance, preventing the dissipation of marital funds and enjoining one party from threatening physical harm against the other and from harassing him or her. The Automatic Injunction is effective against both parties at the same time. Make sure you understand the terms of the Automatic Injunction if one has been issued in your case. If this Automatic Injunction is violated, the person violating the court order can face possible incarceration for contempt of court (failing to obey a court order).

Learn how LaFevor & Slaughter can help

The Knoxville divorce lawyers of LaFevor & Slaughter offers comprehensive counsel and support to family law clients throughout Tennessee. If you are contemplating a divorce, you can find the answers to your questions with Jim LaFevor and Patrick Slaughter. To reserve an appointment, please call 865.272.4454 or fill out our convenient contact form.