How divorce varies by state

Divorce varies by state, and the differences can be very important. Find out which parts of the divorce process vary the most and how you can prepare for your divorce.

by Ronna L. DeLoe, Esq.
updated May 11, 2023 ·  4min read

Divorce does not look the same in each state. There are as many differences in divorce law as there are states. The requirements of one state may be completely different in another state or even in a neighboring state. This overview looks at some of the different divorce laws by state.

How are state divorce laws different?

State divorce laws differ in many ways including:

  • Process serving requirements
  • Waiting periods or cooling-off periods
  • Property distribution
  • Divorce filing fees
  • Child custody laws
  • Child support and alimony (also called maintenance)
  • Legal separation requirements
  • Grounds for divorce and getting a no-fault divorce
  • How to file for divorce
  • Contested divorce (going to court to resolve issues)
  • Uncontested divorce (agreement on issues may avoid court appearances)
  • Divorce vs. dissolution of marriage
  • Community property state vs. equitable distribution state

Every divorce is different, and that’s certainly true about divorces in different states. The relatively easy divorce your friend had in a neighboring state has no bearing on your own divorce. By the same token, your friend could have been in court for years but your divorce might be done quickly. It’s important to know the differences in divorce laws and differences in each divorce by state. There are too many details to cover all the differences so that this article will cover some from the above list.

How states differ in process serving requirements

Almost all states permit anyone 18 years old or older, who is not part of the divorce, serve divorce papers, which is called a petition or a complaint depending on the state. In many states, a sheriff or sheriff’s deputy can also serve divorce papers. Some states determine on which days these papers can be served. Tennessee, Maine, Florida, Massachusetts and New York are some states which do not permit service of papers on Sunday. New York also prohibits service on Saturday if the person receiving them observes a religious holiday. Minnesota prohibits service on Sundays and holidays.

Some states require process servers to be licensed. Alaska, Delaware, Michigan, Nevada, Oklahoma, and Texas require process servers to be licensed for service of divorce papers. New York requires process servers to be licensed in New York City but not statewide.

California allows service by a friend, relative, sheriff or professional process server. Despite California’s lenient rules for service, it is advisable to have a professional serve papers for you. If process is served incorrectly, this can ruin your case and service must be started all over again.

Most states do not permit you to serve your own papers in a contested divorce, but if you are filing uncontested divorce papers it may be possible for you to serve the papers yourself. Check with your county clerk to find out whether you can serve these papers. Remember, though, if you’re going to serve them it’s crucial for you to serve them properly.

What is a cooling-off period and how does it vary by state?

A divorce cooling-off period is a mandatory waiting period before a divorce is finalized. Its purpose is to allow reconciliation, although it doesn’t often happen during this time. The cooling-off period varies substantially from state to state. It does not include the amount of time the case could take to be resolved, which could be a few months to a few years depending on your case.

California has the longest cooling-off period—six months. It will take six months plus one day before a divorce can be finalized in California even if everything else is resolved. That doesn’t mean the divorce will only take six months. Other factors apply such as how long it takes the case to get on the calendar and how difficult it is to resolve issues. The six months begins after the petition is served.

A cooling-off period may change if there are children. For example, Idaho’s cooling-off period is 20 days but 90 days is possible if there are children.

Some states do not have any cooling-off period. New Jersey, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Nevada, Georgia, and Montana are among states that do not have a cooling-off period. Check with your state to see if there is a cooling-off period and if so, how long it is.

How do filing fees vary by state?

Filing fees vary significantly from state to state. These amounts are approximations because fees are always changing.

  • Florida’s is the highest at $421
  • California charges $395
  • New York charges $335
  • Illinois charges $324.50
  • Pennsylvania charges $316.98

Check with your clerk’s office to find out how much filing fees are in your state.

If you are considering an uncontested divorce online, LegalZoom can help you get the divorce documents you need. We help you fill out the paperwork and check it for completeness and accuracy, and provide step-by-step instructions for filing and completing your divorce.

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Ronna L. DeLoe, Esq.

About the Author

Ronna L. DeLoe, Esq.

Ronna L. DeLoe is a freelance writer and a published author who has written hundreds of legal articles. She does family … Read more

This portion of the site is for informational purposes only. The content is not legal advice. The statements and opinions are the expression of the author, not LegalZoom, and have not been evaluated by LegalZoom for accuracy, completeness, or changes in the law.