When most people hear the word “divorce,” they assume it means the whole process of events and issues that are part of the unwinding of a marriage: separation, alimony, child support, etc. But in North Carolina, the word “divorce” actually refers to just the legal action that terminates the marriage. When the Judgment of Absolute Divorce is entered, the marriage is officially over. Although it sounds momentous, it is by far the easiest and fastest part of the whole process. For most people, the greatest stress and sense of relief is around getting the financial and child custody issues resolved. The entry of divorce itself is not a big event.
In order to file for divorce in North Carolina, you (or your spouse) must have been a North Carolina resident for at least six months prior to filing, and you must have been separated for a full year. “Filing for divorce” means actually filing a lawsuit – a summons is issued and a complaint is filed, and your spouse must be properly served. The person who files the complaint is the plaintiff, and the one who is served is the defendant. There is no advantage or disadvantage to either role, except that the plaintiff pays the filing fee. As long as the requirements of residency and a year’s separation have been met, there are no grounds for fighting a divorce; neither spouse can refuse to consent to the termination of the marriage.
Thirty days after the summons and complaint have been served on your spouse, a hearing can be scheduled. Neither spouse is required to attend the hearing if you are represented by an attorney. The judge signs the judgment of divorce, and your attorney will forward you a copy of the judgment for your records.
If either spouse wants to resume the use of their own name after the divorce, that can be ordered in the final judgment. The Complaint must state that one of the parties wants to resume the use of their former name, and an extra $10 filing fee must be paid at the time of filing. The court system will then notify the Bureau of Vital Statistics about the name change.
Because the actual divorce is the easiest part of the whole process, you can do it yourself. (The website of the 28th Judicial District Bar offers a self-help package with forms and detailed instructions you can download.) Hiring an attorney is a convenience that will save you time and stress and give you the comfort of knowing that everything is being handled correctly – but it is not absolutely necessary. If you choose to handle your own divorce, pay attention to the details, and be careful to follow all the instructions precisely.