As is common in many states, there are generally three ways to end a marriage in Ohio. From easiest (and often least expensive) to often ugliest and most costly, they are: (1) non-contested divorce; (2) dissolution; and (3) contested divorce.
In each case, the same legal forms are indicated and are determined by county. One of the biggest reasons to retain legal counsel in any of these situations in Ohio is that each county is different and some counties are very different indeed. The wrong forms or formats can add many months and many thousands of dollars to the end of a marriage. Even with trained legal counsel, this process can be time-intensive and tricky. Though people legally can “do it themselves” (termed “pro se”), it is often best to pay the money to get it done efficiently, completely, and with finality. This is especially true where minor children are involved. Courts often have little patience for pro se litigants making mistakes and “ignorance is never an excuse under the law”.
Without children, in most Ohio counties the necessary documents include: (1) the complaint for divorce; and (2) the separation agreement. With minor children, add on several additional forms and a shared parenting agreement. Whether custody will be full, shared, or joint, there are details to be completed.
A non-contested divorce is just that; not contested. In this form, the represented Plaintiff fills out the preliminary paperwork and then serves the forms and prepared documents upon the Defendant. Once service is perfected, the Defendant has three options: (1) contest or fight the complaint; (2) sign off and not contest; or (3) do nothing. In the latter two cases, the court will allow the allotted 28-day answer period; then schedule the case for a final, non-contested hearing. In that case, the Defendant need not even appear at the final hearing. The Plaintiff appears with a witness to testify and attest that: (1) they know the Plaintiff; (2) the Plaintiff has resided in Ohio at least 180 days; (3) the Plaintiff has resided in the subject county for at least 90 days; and (4) the Plaintiff and Defendant meet the cause of action claim used for the divorce (e.g., incompatibility, residing apart for at least one contiguous year, gross neglect, etc.). Non-contested divorces can be the fastest and least expensive option for ending a marriage in Ohio; as long as they stay non-contested.
A dissolution happens when both Plaintiff and Defendant decide on everything and decide those terms together and in (relative) harmony. One attorney handles the paperwork for both parties, but can only represent one of the parties. The other party is dealt with honestly and openly, but must represent him- or her-self pro se. Once the dissolution is approved by the court, both parties are responsible for what they signed; represented or not. Dissolutions can be as fast and inexpensive as a non-contested divorce. The concern with dissolutions is that if at any point there is divergence of wants and desires, the case can quickly become contested (and contentious). At that point, it is the ethical obligation of the attorney to end negotiations, tell the unrepresented party that the case has become contested, and recommend he or she retain private legal counsel of their own.
Finally, a contested divorce is just what you would expect; a fight! These can become ugly; with children used as pawns in a nasty chess game and the two sides fighting over the silverware.
These three pathways are not mutually exclusive. In other words, a non-contested divorce or dissolution can become contested and, in rare cases, a contested situation can end quietly and equitably. The bottom line is this: the best thing a divorce attorney can do is to evaluate the situation and help his or her client decide which path to take for maximum gain and minimum pain in a situation usually defined by pain and heartache.