Anatomy of a Divorce

I have had the privilege of helping many clients navigate the difficult waters of divorce. Understandably, this experience can be a foundation-shifting event, throwing a person’s finances as well as their relationship into turmoil. In my experience, however, the answer to a simple question can remove a tremendous amount of stress: “So, what does a divorce in South Carolina look like?”

The first step in a Family Court case is the filing of a Summons and Complaint requesting a divorce. This Complaint is required to list the legal reason for the divorce as well as any other relief that is requested. Typical divorces usually request some of the following: equitable distribution (the splitting of marital assets), child custody, child support, alimony, and attorney’s fees.

When the Complaint is filed, the Family Court will assign a date for the Temporary Hearing. In York County, this hearing is usually set within thirty (30) days of the filing date. At this hearing, the presiding Judge will make a preliminary decision on all of the relief that has been requested. In other words, the Judge will decide parenting time with the children, who gets the house, how much child support is warranted, whether anyone will have to pay alimony, whether one side has to pay for the other’s attorney fees, etc.

It is important to remember, however, that the Judge’s decision at the Temporary Hearing is just that—temporary. The Judge at the Final Hearing has complete authority to decide whatever he thinks is fair on a final basis, regardless of what was decided at the initial hearing. There is a clear justification for this process. Temporary Hearings last approximately 15 minutes and there are many limits as to what and how much information a Judge can consider at such a controlled, brief hearing. Since Final Hearings in divorce cases often take as long as a week, the law recognizes that the Judge who is able to examine all of the evidence of a case is more likely to render a fair decision.

After the Temporary Hearing, the parties are allowed to engage in a process called “discovery”. During this part of the case, both Husband and Wife have to reveal all of their financial information and must answer questions regarding anything relevant to the divorce. These questions are often wide-ranging, but can relate to squandering of marital assets, infidelity, or drug use during the marriage.

After the discovery phase, and before the Family Court will convene a Final Hearing, the parties must engage in mediation. This process requires all parties and their attorneys to be present, along with a person who is employed to help the parties find middle ground (the mediator). This process can take from a couple hours to an entire day depending on the complexity of the issues which need to be discussed.

If there is no agreement at mediation, the mediator will alert the Family Court that the parties are at an impasse and require the Court’s help in order to resolve their issues. The Court then schedules a Pre-Trial Hearing to determine how long of a hearing the parties need in order for all evidence to be presented. At the conclusion of the Final Hearing, the Judge makes a final decision on all issues, and this decision is incorporated into a Decree of Divorce—the end of the process.

Along the way to the Final Hearing, there may be additional hearings to determine whether someone has violated a previous Court Order or to help resolve a newly discovered issue. The Court may also appoint a Guardian ad litem to protect the best interests of the children if custody is an issue. It is also important to realize that the process can be shortened if both sides are able to come to an agreement, which is something that an experienced Family Court attorney can help negotiate. The basic outline above, however, has given many of my clients the comfort of knowing the road ahead—which can be priceless during a such stressful time.