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Legal Information: North Dakota


December 28, 2023

Step 1. File your petition

A divorce is started by filing legal papers in court. If you have a lawyer, s/he will handle this for you. If you cannot afford an attorney, you may be able to get low cost representation from organizations that provide free or low-cost legal representation. To locate one of these organizations near you, visit our ND Finding a Lawyer page.

The clerk of court in the county where you are filing may have the forms that you will need. If you do not have any children and your divorce is going to be uncontested, you can use the forms provided by the North Dakota Supreme Court to file for divorce, which you can access on our ND Download Court Forms page. 

Step 2. Service of process

After you file your petition, your spouse will have to be served with a copy of the court papers, including the summons and complaint. Being served means giving the papers to your spouse to let him know that you have filed for divorce and that s/he needs to come to court if s/he wants to contest it or be involved in it. If you do not know where your spouse is, there may be other alternatives for how to serve him/her. If you are having trouble serving your spouse, it is highly recommended that you get a lawyer, who can ask the judge for permission for alternate service. To find one in your area, visit our ND Finding a Lawyer page.

Often the sheriff’s department can serve your spouse or you may have to contact a constable or a private process server. Do not attempt to serve the papers yourself.

You can find more information about service of process in our Preparing for Court – By Yourself section, in the question called What is service of process and how do I accomplish it?

Step 3. Your spouse files an answer

After your spouse has been served with the summons and complaint, s/he must file an answer within 21 days or else you can file a motion for a default judgment.1 If s/he does not answer, a judge will usually give you what you asked for in your petition. This is called a default judgment. If s/he answers and agrees with everything, then also you get what you asked for. This is an uncontested divorce. If one of these two things happens, you usually skip to Step 6. If s/he does disagree with something, then your divorce is a contested divorce and continue to Step 4.

1 See North Dakota Courts website Informational Guide

Step 4. Discovery and settlement attempts

If your spouse doesn’t immediately consent to the divorce, both sides will share information (“discovery”) and usually try to reach a settlement to avoid a trial. If you and your spouse reach an agreement here, you can submit that agreement to the judge. The judge may call an informal hearing to make sure both of you understand the agreement. If the judge approves of the agreement, s/he can issue a divorce decree. If you settle with your spouse here, then you can skip to Step 6. If you don’t settle here, read Step 5. You can find more information on discovery in our Preparing for Court - By Yourself section.

Step 5. Trial

After the parties finish with exchanging information (“discovery”), the case will go to trial unless a settlement is reached. If you go to trial, both sides will present evidence and argue for what they want. The judge will then decide what s/he thinks is fair and then issue a divorce decree containing his/her orders. Trials can be extremely difficult without the help of an attorney. See our ND Finding a Lawyer page for legal referrals.

Step 6. Judge issues divorce decree

After you and your spouse either reach a settlement agreement or the judge hears both sides at trial, the judge will issue a divorce decree. This is a document that says that you and your spouse are now legally divorced and orders a division of property and other relief.