Is Divorce a Civil Case or a Criminal Case in Arizona?


Generally speaking, there are two types of cases: criminal cases and civil cases. Criminal cases are initiated by a government prosecutor against a person or organization who has broken federal, state, or local laws. Civil cases are typically between private parties, encompassing everything outside of criminal matters from family law to probate and small claims.

As divorce (dissolution of marriage) cases fall under the umbrella of family law, divorce cases are considered a civil case. In Arizona, family law also covers child custody, child support, guardianship, and adoptions.

What is Civil Court?

In Arizona, civil law deals with Arizona laws that pertain to the rights of private citizens. Most cases involve legal disagreements between individuals, partnerships, corporations, and businesses, but they can include state or local government entities. 

Arizona civil courts cover a wide variety of cases, including name changes, divorce (dissolution of marriage), small claims, and landlord/tenant disputes. Most civil cases involve disputes involving property damage, debt collection, breach of contract, and monetary damages for personal injuries.

In civil court cases, the party that initiates the case is referred to as the plaintiff. The responding party (or respondent) is referred to as the defendant. This is similar to criminal court cases, where the government is the plaintiff, and the individual charged with criminal conduct is the defendant.

How to Bring a Civil Lawsuit in Arizona

While there are a wide variety of civil cases, they all follow the same general process. Whether you’re filing for divorce, suing your business partner, or seeking damages from someone who injured you, civil cases in Arizona follow a simple six-step process:

  1. The plaintiff files a complaint with the clerk of court stating why they are suing the defendant, and what action they want the court to take on your behalf.
  2. The plaintiff serves a copy of the complaint and summons to the defendant.
  3. The defendant has approximately 20 days to file a written response admitting or denying the statements in the complaint.
  4. During the discovery phase, the plaintiff and defendant exchange information about the case in preparation for trial. This includes obtaining testimony through depositions and gathering physical evidence.
  5. The case will be tried before a judge or a jury.
  6. Based on the evidence and testimony presented at trial, the judge will deliver a decision or the jury will deliver a verdict.

Note that the losing party always has the right to appeal the court’s decision to the next-higher level of the court. However, appeals are based on an assertion that the appropriate laws were not properly upheld — not on a dispute of the facts at hand. In other words, you cannot appeal the decision because you didn’t like the outcome. Your appeal must assert that some aspect of federal, state, or local law was not properly followed.

Also, keep in mind that many civil cases are resolved outside of court through private negotiations and mediation. Certain types of cases are ineligible for bypassing court (e.g. guardianships, probate, etc.), but most of the time it’s in the best interests of everybody — including the court itself — to let the plaintiff and defendant settle their issues privately. 

Divorce Proceedings in Arizona

The divorce process varies slightly from state to state. In Arizona, the process typically proceeds as following:

  1. Serving the divorce petition – the process begins with the divorce petition. One spouse (the petitioner) will write and serve the petition to the other spouse, and file the petition with the county court. This starts the clock on the mandatory waiting period, establishes the date of separation, and sets automatic restraining orders. From this point forward, neither spouse may take the children out of state, sell property, borrow against property, or sell/borrow against insurance held for the other spouse.
  2. Responding to the divorce petition – the spouse who receives service of process is referred to as the respondent. The respondent must file a response with the court. Agreeing with the divorce petition sets the stage for an uncontested divorce, while disagreeing (or refusing to respond at all) leads to a contested divorce with negotiations, hearings, and possibly a trial.
  3. Disclosing information to the court – both parties will need to disclose pertinent information to the court, including incomes, expenses, assets, and liabilities.
  4. Negotiations and hearings – in uncontested divorce cases, there’s no need for negotiations or hearings when both parties are in agreement. With a little bit of extra paperwork, the divorce should be finalized soon. In contested divorce cases, there may be court hearings, private negotiations, and mediation sessions. In rare cases, a trial may be necessary.
  5. Final divorce decree – the divorce is finalized when the court issues a final divorce decree. If the couple has children, the court will also need to issue a child support decree.

Keep in mind that Arizona imposes a 60-day mandatory waiting period for divorce cases, with the clock starting the day you serve notice of divorce. If the court issues your divorce decree before the waiting period expires, the order technically doesn’t take effect until the conclusion of the waiting period. In Arizona, you’re not officially divorced until you have a divorce decree in hand and the waiting period has fully expired.

Related Questions

What is an Uncontested Divorce in Arizona?

In an uncontested divorce, both spouses agree on all of the important issues pertaining to the divorce. This is the preferred method for filing for a dissolution of marriage, as there’s no need for court hearings, legal posturing, or negotiations. The process is significantly faster, less stressful, and most importantly, less expensive. 

To qualify for an uncontested divorce in Arizona, both parties must be Arizona residents for at least 90 days before filing for dissolution of marriage. You must be in agreement on division of property and debt, alimony, and child support and custody when children are in the picture.

How Does Divorce Work in Arizona?

Divorce cases are technically referred to as a dissolution of marriage. The principle is simple: two individuals were once legally wed, and they now wish to dissolve that legal union. 

Of course, divorce is rarely that simple in practice. Arizona law dictates that all property (and by extension, debt) accrued after the wedding day is shared 50/50 as community property. When a couple divorces, that community property needs to be divvied up fairly between both parties. Arizona law also provides for alimony, so the divorce case must consider income and expenses going forward.

When there are children involved, a divorce case must also include agreements regarding child support, parenting time, and decision-making. Considering how alimony and child support payments can quickly add up, this is often a sticking point in Arizona divorce cases.

The court will only issue a divorce decree when all of these important issues are settled and agreed upon. In the best case scenario, the parties can reach an amicable agreement outside of court. In many cases, some negotiations and mediation sessions may be required to hash out the details. In rare cases where the parties cannot reach an agreement, the divorce case may need to go to trial.

In the end, the ultimate goal is to walk away with a divorce decree. Only then is your marriage officially dissolved.

Receive Help With a Divorce in Arizona

Getting a divorce in Arizona is not only complicated, but it is going to determine a good portion of your financial and emotional future. An unfair result could see you paying much more than hiring the services of a divorce attorney.

At JacksonWhite we don’t treat our clients as “just another case” but instead approach each unique case with the compassion and respect it deserves. We understand how difficult these cases can be and we want to help you every step of the way.

Call the Family Law Team at (480) 467-4348 to hire a divorce attorney today.

Contact Our Family Law Team

Call (480) 467-4348 or fill out the form to schedule your consultation and discuss your best legal options.