Divorce in Oklahoma, now known as Dissolution of Marriage, can be the most devastating and stressful event in a person’s life. If custody of children is an issue, the stress is only multiplied. Hiring an experienced attorney will not only relieve some of the stress but the guidance and legal advice you receive will also benefit you in the eyes of the Court. Everyone’s case is unique and there are always options. Please call for a free confidential consultation.
Under Oklahoma law, divorces are in the nature of special civil actions. That means that an individual must first file a legal pleading called Petition with the Court asking for the relief she/he needs. To file in Oklahoma, you must be a resident of Oklahoma for at least six months. If you have lived here less than six months, you may file a Petition for Legal Separation and later amend it to a divorce if both parties agree to jurisdiction. Generally, the requested relief in a Petition for Dissolution of Marriage is for a determination and division of marital and separate real and personal property, division of marital debts and a divorce. If the divorcing parties have children, then custody, child support, visitation, insurance and other child care expenses become requested relief. Additionally, Tulsa County, as well as most other surrounding counties require parents to attend a seminar called “Helping Children Cope with Divorce”. A link to the seminar in Tulsa County is provided in our links section.
The drafting, review, signing and filing of the Petition for Dissolution of Marriage begins the lawsuit process. In Tulsa County the parties are immediately given a hearing notice for a Parenting Plan Conference or PPC. This conference is not an evidentiary hearing, rather, a brief conference with the Court that provides a lot of information regarding mediation, community resources and the chance to sign up and attend the court ordered seminar. The goal of this PPC hearing is for the parties to come to an agreement on temporary issues while they wait the ninety days required under Oklahoma law before a final divorce can be granted. With all the paperwork filed, the opposing spouse gets served the legal papers and must file an answer within twenty days of service. If you receive any legal papers, do not hesitate to call an attorney as soon as possible.
The next major step is establishing a Temporary Order. A Temporary Order is intended to maintain the status quo. That means that the Court seeks to keep the parties in relatively the same position and lifestyle as they were before the Petition was filed. The only exception in maintaining the status quo is how the Court views temporary visitation between parent and child. Oklahoma has statutory preferences for “shared parenting” which means both parents spend as close to equal time with the child(ren) as their work schedules or other factors allow and as in the best interests of the child(ren). At the Parenting Plan Conference, the Court expects the parties to submit an agreed temporary order that addresses visitation and child support and any other temporary issues the parties can agree to. If the parties are unable to agree, the Court refers them to the trial judge assigned to the case for an evidentiary hearing. If not agreed upon at the PPC, the Court, following an evidentiary hearing, may make the following temporarily orders: possession of the marital residence, debt division, child custody, child support, visitation, alimony, certain restraining orders, attorney fees and costs, and any other equitable relief. Temporary orders are usually entered fairly quickly and are made by agreement of the parties or decided by a Judge following a hearing. Temporary Orders are not meant to be final and may be modified at the Court’s discretion.
Following the entry of a Temporary Order the discovery process begins. Discovery is the legal word for the exchange of written questions and request for documents. Additionally, a party may subpoena records and take depositions so that they may have all of the evidence necessary to make an informed decision regarding settlement or to be used as exhibits at trial. In custody trials, an expert is often retained and may perform an evaluation to aid the Court in making a decision on what custody and visitation arrangement is in the child(ren)’s best interests. Another example is the employment of a real estate appraiser to value the marital residence or other land. Once discovery is complete, the parties typically go to mediation in hopes of settling the case and prior to a Judge granting them a hearing on the final divorce. A Final Order or Final Decree can also be entered by agreement or instead of going to trial. In Tulsa County, most of the Judges require the parties to attend mediation prior to trial to see if their differences can be worked out before an expensive time consuming trial. Mediation involves having the parties sit down with a qualified settlement mediator to see if the parties can resolve some or all of their issues. That is the entire process in a nutshell. There is far more involved than outlined here. There are many complicated tax, retirement and estate issues that must be resolved as well. This overview is just a summary of the more important issues we will discuss with you. We have been through the process many many times with so many clients so we are very familiar with the proceedings. It is always our policy to appear with our clients at every court appearance, including the temporary order hearing, final trial, mediation and any other hearing.
Preparing for Divorce:
Divorce is one of the most stressful events that will occur in one’s lifetime. One of the first things you may need to seriously consider is to seek personal counseling. Having a support network is critical for an individual who is having trouble dealing with the divorce. There are many counseling options including local support groups, your church, friends and family. Helping yourself cope with the issues will help us to help you more effectively. A well balanced, informed and stress free client makes the best witness. At your initial consultation with our office you should bring a written list of your questions, any legal papers you have received, and any other legal document you believe is important. A lot of client’s do Google searches and bring in the “usual” lists of questions. We encourage you to do the same so we can answer your questions and dispel any myths you may have read or heard. Financial issues such as child support and alimony are nearly always contested and financial documentation is required to get accurate information to the Court to aid the Judge in making the best possible decision. You should also bring a copy of your most recent paycheck (that shows itemized deductions), a list of your assets and debts, titles to property, your past years tax return, a current or anticipated budget with proof of your expenses, bank statements, and any retirement information. Do not worry if any of these items are not readily available, we have methods to obtain these. We will provide you a list of what additional documentation is needed for your particular issues.
The Internet contains a lot of information regarding divorce and family law issues. Also, you may have a friend who told you what the law is and what will happen. Some of the best clients we have had have done a lot of research before our initial meeting. It is not necessary to do so, but if you do run across questions, make sure to write them down so we can give you the answer. There is also a lot of misinformation out there. Someone always has a buddy that only pays $10.00 a month in child support or has a girlfriend that gets $2,000.00 a month in alimony. Every case is unique and requires an experienced attorney to make sure that every present and future expectation of the client is reduced to a Court Order that the client can rely on for years to come. The only way to make that happen is by carefully listening to the client and having the experience to know what to ask. We are often asked about “divorce kits” and “budget divorces” but the conventional wisdom is always true, you get what you pay for. We handle many uncontested divorce matters at very reasonable rates. In fact, many of our clients came to us because they attempted to handle the divorce with a kit initially and end up paying us nearly double to correct the errors and omissions that occur in using some boiler plate divorce form.
We are a small firm and because of that, we manage to keep our overhead expenses lower and our personal service high. We pass these savings on to our clients and avoid becoming “bill horses” like a lot of larger law firms. We believe that all expenses and costs should be explained to the client at the initial hearing so that there is no misunderstanding regarding billings. We set retainers based only upon the work that is needed and authorized by you. If we use all of your retainer, that will be reflected on your monthly bill. If we don’t use all of your money, you will receive a bill and a check for the unused portion of the retainer. We also have a written retainer agreement for you to sign so that you know what our billing procedures and practices are. Most importantly, we believe in the old fashioned concept of calling and meeting with us over any issue regarding our legal representation of you whether it be a billing question or a private and confidential matter you want shared only with us.
Here are some of the terms that come up most often in Oklahoma family law cases:
- Alimony: Also called “spousal support”. These are financial payments made to help support a spouse or former spouse during separation or following divorce. The amount is based on many factors including the length of the marriage, the parties incomes and expenses, the ability to pay support, and the need for support.
- Annulment: An annulment is a legal decree that the marriage was invalid from its inception. When you obtain an annulment, it is as if the marriage never existed. In Oklahoma, annulments are granted only for specific cases, such as fraud.
- Automatic Temporary Injunctions: These are orders that will prohibit you and your spouse from doing certain things (such as wasting assets) while your divorce is in process. These go into effect the day you file for divorce or the day you are served and receive notice of them.
- Child support: Child support refers to the ongoing payments one parent must make to the other for the support of children after a divorce. Child support will also be ordered in paternity cases when two parents were never married, but had a child together.
- Child Support Guidelines: Guidelines used in some jurisdictions including Oklahoma to establish a base for determining child support. Takes into account the gross incomes of both parents, less special adjustments (such as support paid for children of previous marriage), day care expenses paid for spouse to work or go to school, medical insurance premiums for the child and the number of overnights each parent has with the child(ren). In some situations the court has the authority to deviate from the guidelines depending on the facts of the case.
- Contempt: More correctly known as Indirect Contempt of Court which is the willful violation of a valid court order.
- DHS: The Department of Human Services Child Support Enforcement Division (OKDHS-CSE). Not to be confused with DHS Child Welfare that investigates allegations of child abuse, this Oklahoma State Govenmnet agency is a necessary party to a famil law case involving children if the parents are receiving any governmental assistance for the chil(ren)… SoonerCare, TANF, etc. DHS is also extremly helpful at collecting court ordered child support by garnishing wages and intercepting tax returns for past due child support.
- Discovery: Pretrial procedure for requesting information and documents from the other parent relevant to the divorce proceedings. This can include exchanging business, income, and financial documents between the parties.
- Equitable distribution: Oklahoma is an equitable distribution state, which means that marital property must be divided on a “fair and equitable” basis in divorce. Equitable doesn’t necessarily mean equal. It may also mean fair.
- Evidentiary Hearing: This type of hearing is for the Court to hear evidence admitted and objected to by the parties and the parties’ counsel. An evidentiary hearing is generally recorded by a court reporter and lay and expert witnesses are presented to the Court. In contrast to this is a “status hearing”.
- Grounds for divorce: Oklahoma is a “no fault” divorce state which means that even though there are statutory grounds for a divorce, such as adultery, these grounds do not need to be proven. The Court can grant one party or the other a divorce on the grounds of irreconcilable differences which requires that one party needs only to testify that they are incompatible and the Court can grant the divorce to both parties.
- Guardian ad litem (GAL): A lawyer appointed to make a report to the Court regarding the best interests of your children if there is a child custody dispute. The GAL does an investigation, visits the parties homes’ and interviews relevant witnesses, reviews school and medical records and then drafts a report making recomendations that are helpful to the Court.
- Joint LEGAL custody: Joint legal custody is where both parents have equal decision making authority regarding the parties’ child as to the important decisions for your child, such as religious upbringing, education, medical care and extracurricular activities. It does not have anything to do with the amount of time that each parent has physical custody.
- Joint PHYSICAL Custody: More commonly called “visiation”.Custody arrangement where the child spends time physically sleeping in both parents’ homes. This may mean that the child goes week-to-week spending time equally with each parent.
- Legal separation: A legal separation is like a divorce, except the couple doesn’t dissolve the marriage. The couple divides their property and lives apart, but continues to be legally married. Some couples separate instead of divorce so that a spouse can continue on the partner’s medical insurance. Others separate for religious reasons or because they are not ready for divorce.
- Marital dissolution: Marital dissolution is another term for divorce.
- Mediation: Mediation involves the use of a neutral third party to help you and your spouse resolve divorce issues out of court. Mediation is not binding on either party. However, mediation agreements signed by the parties may be enforced by the Court.
- Modification: Filed as a motion and set for an evidentiary hearing by the court Modifications request changes be made in physical or legal custody, or in child support payments, thus modifying the existing Court order. To make a modification to an existing order there must be a permanent, substantial, material change in circumstances.
- Parenting Coordinator (PC): Usually a lawyer or Mental Health Professional appointed by the Court to assit high conflict parties in communication to lessen the tension and stress on the minor children. PC’s are given specific limited authority to make recomendations to the Court that can provide clarification to the exisiting Court orders and resolve parental disputes without the necissity of litigation.
- Parenting Plan Conference: A parenting plan conference is the initial informative hearing for parties with children who have filed a divorce or paternity action. The parties will watch a video and generally listen to the Court and other speakers inform you about the procedures. A link with more information is provided in our links section under the Tulsa District Court website.
- Parenting time: Also known as visitation, parenting time is the time the child will spend with the noncustodial parent.
- Paternity: When a child is born to parents who are not married, custody is automatically granted to the mother and once the father is established, he will have parental rights and be responsible for paying child support. If the two parties do not agree who the father is, paternity is established in court using a DNA test.
- Petition: The first document filed in court and the one that starts the clock running on Oklahoma’s 90 day waiting period for the granting of a divorce with children. Ten days is all that is required without children. The petition includes the party’s requests for relief and important information about the marriage, such as the husband, wife, and any children’s names, whether there is any separate or community property, child custody, child support and spousal support. The document is sometimes referred to as the complaint.
- Physical custody: Physical custody is visitation. Periods of Physical custody refer to the times that each parent will spend with the child. Generally, the parent who has primary physical custody has the child more than the other parent.
- Prenuptial Agreement: Also called an Ante-nuptial Agreement or Prenup. An agreement entered into before marriage that sets forth each party’s rights and responsibilities should the marriage terminate by death or divorce.
- Protective Order: Oklahoma’s domestic Violence law is the Protection from Domestic Abuse Act and applies to certain classes of people in a domestic relationship. Upon a victim’s application for protection the Court can issue orders for the other party to remain away from the victim and restrain any contact with the victim or face criminal consequesnces.
- Public Defender: An attorney appointed by the Court to represent the child’s preferences. Because the need is so high for Public Defenders, Courts generally only appoint them in cases of abuse.
- QDRO: A qualified domestic relations order is a legal document used to divide retirement assets such as pensions, 401(k) accounts and IRA accounts after a divorce.
- Restraining Order: A civil order issued by the court requiring the subject of the order to refrain from doing something, often issued in conjunction with domestic violence or custody disputes.
- Retainer Agreement: An written agreement that is a legal contract between client and attorney based upon what the attorney estimates the total fee will be. A “retainer” is a fee paid to an attorney to reserve his/her legal services. The fee is paid to an attorney that will be billed against the time spent on the client’s case. The actual amount of time spent and amount billed may be more oe less than the initial retainer paid. There are no flat fees for family law services.
- Separation date: The date of separation for divorces or registered domestic partnerships is when one spouse (or both) or one partner (or both) decides that the marriage or partnership is over and takes some actions to show this (like moving out of the house).
- Sole custody: Sole legal custody is when one parent has sole decision making authority of a child. The parties still communicate about the imporatant life decisions affecting the child, hoever, unlike joint legal custody, the sole custodian does not need the consent of the other parent.
- Spousal support: Also known as spousal maintenance or alimony, spousal support refers to ongoing payments one spouse must make to the other after a divorce to help that spouse make the adjustment from being married to being self sufficient.Â It is not a punitive award.
- Subpoena: A legal summons requiring that one appear in court as a witness to give testimony. It may also include orders for a witness to produces documents or other evidence.
- Status Hearing: Far less adversarial than an evidentiary hearing, a “status hearing” is a hearing for the attorneys in a case to give the Court an update on the status of the case and whether or not the Court can assist the parties in settling their issues or if not, then how the Court can expedite the requirements for a trial.
- Trial: The formal legal process that takes place in court before a judge. The judge receives and reviews evidence presented by both parties and hears testimony from witnesses called by both parties. The judge uses the testimony and evidence to enable her or him to decide in a dispute between two parties.
- Uncontested: When all issues are agreed to by both parties, the divorce is said to be Uncontested.