What is an Uncontested Divorce?

I get a lot of questions about divorce, especially about getting an uncontested divorce. I also get a lot of opinions. Some are correct, but most of them have more to do with TV shows about lawyers and bad advice from relatives than real law. (Not that I’m judging—I learned a lot about doctoring from House, which annoys the heck out of my own doctor.)

uncontested divorceThe importance that people place on whether their divorce is contested or uncontested falls into that category. I get many potential clients who are insistent that he or she has an uncontested divorce. And this is very important to them. It usually means that they think the process will be really easy, and it almost always means that they think the divorce should be cheap. In my opinion, however, the distinction just isn’t that important or meaningful.

A short (promise!) history of Arkansas divorce law is in order. In the past, it was much more difficult to get a divorce. You had to prove certain grounds, and the other spouse could fight you on those grounds. (This is technically still the case in Arkansas, but the grounds for divorce are rarely at issue now. “Grounds” for divorce include things like adultery, separation, insanity, drunkenness, etc.) When an Arkansas law mentions contested divorce or uncontested divorce, this is what it’s talking about. An “uncontested divorce” is one in which the parties are not fighting about whether there are good reasons for divorce. Or, to be a little more specific, the party against whom a ground is alleged has agreed that the other party’s allegations are true.

This is the technical definition of uncontested divorce as compared to contested divorce, which means that it’s not much help. Virtually all divorces are now uncontested. People may fight about money or kids or all manner of things, but they rarely fight about whether there’s a good reason to get divorced.

Many lawyers use the terms differently—to distinguish tough divorces from easy divorces. So, a divorce where the parties agree on everything will be an uncontested divorce in Arkansas. In many instances, anything else is a contested divorce. (And once something is contested, the price automatically goes way up, of course.)

All the emphasis on whether a divorce is contested is, I think, a marketing tactic used to get more money out of clients. Many family lawyers treat this distinction as a binary—an “either-or” situation. It seems that to many Arkansas family lawyers, a divorce is either a $750 issue or an $8000 issue, with nothing in the middle.

But any decent family lawyer knows that there’s almost always going to be some kind of pushback in a divorce. It’s a lawsuit—the parties are going to disagree. No divorce is ever truly “uncontested.” Selling people on this false dichotomy—and then jacking the price up at the slightest hint of (the inevitable) conflict is a bad way to make a living.

The better way to think about a divorce—and the better way to charge someone for handling a divorce—is that it’s on a spectrum of conflict. It’s not either contested or uncontested. It’s not either a $750 divorce or a $8000 divorce. It is always contested; my job is to find out where the conflict lies, charge someone to handle it, and resolve it.

Or, put another way, my job is to take the divorce that might be $8000 and make it cost less. For many lawyers, however, the goal appears to be making every divorce an $8000 divorce.

This is just one of the many ways we try to practice a different kind of Arkansas family law. If you’re in the market for something different, give us a call and we can tell you more about it.