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Kevin O'Flaherty

In this article we discuss an alternative method of obtaining a divorce called a “pro se” divorce. Specifically, we address:

  • What is a “Pro Se” divorce?
  • How to Begin a “Pro Se” Divorce in Iowa
  • Service in an Iowa Divorce Case
  • What if I am the Respondent in an Iowa Dissolution Proceeding?
  • Children in the Middle/Mediation
  • The 90-Day Waiting Period in an Iowa Divorce Case
  • The Final Decree

Typically, when one wants to obtain a divorce, or a ‘dissolution of marriage’, one hires an attorney. Divorce can carry complicated issues, especially when parties share children or a lot of property or assets. See Iowa Recent Changes to Family Law 2021 for more information. However, what happens if you do not want to hire an attorney? Is there an option to get a divorce without an attorney in Iowa? There is! It is called a “pro se” divorce.  

What is a “Pro Se” Divorce?

This refers to the process of representing oneself in court, and in the context of family law, obtaining a divorce without the assistance of an attorney.  

The “Petitioner” is the spouse that files the petition to start the divorce process. The other spouse is the “Respondent” and will need to be served with the petition and notice of the court proceeding. Both parties keep these designations of “Petitioner” and “Respondent” through the end of the case.  

How to Begin a “Pro Se” Divorce in Iowa

The “Petitioner” must fill out and sign the following forms:

  • Form 201: Petition for Dissolution of Marriage (include Form 202: Coversheet if filing in paper)
  • Form 203: Confidential Information (only if filing in paper)
  • Form 204: Original Notice for Personal Service (use Form 204a instead if filing in paper)  
  • Form 211: Protected Information form  

These forms must then be filed with your county’s clerk of court along with the appropriate filing fee. If you are filing electronically, you must register an account to do so. Once Forms 201, 203, 204 and 211 have been electronically filed and accepted, you must print copies of them to serve on your spouse, the “Respondent”.  

If you are filing by paper, you should take Forms 201, 202, 203, 204a and 211 with you to your county courthouse. Be sure to bring several extra copies of Forms 201, 204a & 211 so that you can file one copy and use the others for service.  

Service in an Iowa Divorce Case

Within 90 days of filing your Petition for Dissolution with the county clerk, you must serve the Petition (Form 201), Original Notice (Form 204 if filed electronically, Form 204a if filed by paper), and if applicable, the Protected Information form (Form 211) on your spouse. If this deadline is not met, the case will be dismissed.  

There are several available options for completing service if you know where your spouse can be served:

  • Personal Service  
  • Via Sheriff  
  • Third-Party Delivery

There are also options if you do not know where your spouse can be served. If you have exhausted all options to locate your spouse, including mailing the original documents to your spouse’s last known address, with no success, you can ask the court for permission to give notice by publication in a newspaper using Form 207. If your request is granted, you must fill out Form 208 and take this to your local newspaper.  

What if I am the Respondent in an Iowa Dissolution Proceeding?

If you have received divorce papers, then you are the “Respondent” in the divorce proceeding. It is important that you carefully read the documents to understand what your spouse is asking for and what is required of you. At this point, you may decide whether to continue pro se or speak with an attorney.  

Whether you continue pro se or with an attorney, you must file an Answer to the Petition within twenty (20) days of receiving the Petition and Original Notice, using Form 215 or 216. You will use Form 215 if the petition you received was a Form 201 petition and you will use Form 216 if it was not. If you fail to meet this deadline, your spouse, the “Petitioner” may be granted a ‘default divorce’, a divorce without your input.  

Children in the Middle/Mediation

Iowa law requires that parties with children must attend a course on the effects of divorce on children called Children in the Middle within forty-five (45) days of service. For more information on this class and the (Link to “Differences Between Pro Se Divorce with Children and without Children in Iowa”), check out our article.  

Courts may require you to attend a mediation session with your spouse before a final decree is entered. This session gives you and your spouse the opportunity to agree on as many issues as possible before being scheduled for a trial. You and your spouse may agree on some issues, all issues or no issues during mediation. Any issues that are not resolved during mediation will be settled at trial. For more information on Mediation in Iowa, review the article at the link.  

The 90-Day Waiting Period in an Iowa Divorce Case

Under Iowa law, a judge cannot sign a final divorce decree before ninety (90) days have passed from the later of: the date the Petition was served on the Respondent, the date the Acceptance of Service was filed or 20 days after the third date of publication by newspaper, absent special circumstances. During this time, one or both spouses can submit several documents to the court that will be necessary for a final decree. Examples of these documents include a Financial Affidavit (Form 224), a Settlement Agreement (Form 228) and a Parenting Plan (if applicable). Parties can also file motions with the court for temporary orders during this time. See Applying for Temporary Orders in Divorce and Custody Cases for more information.

The Final Decree

Ultimately, whether you choose to procure a divorce with or without the assistance of an attorney, you are not divorced until a judge signs off on a final “Decree of Dissolution of Marriage”. The final decree can be obtained by default, by a written settlement agreement, or by trial.  

If the Respondent did not file a timely Answer to the Petition, you can request that the court issue a final decree by default. You will be scheduled for a hearing at which time the judge will decide whether your case is ready for a final decree.  

If you and your spouse agree on all issues including how to divide debts and property, custody and visitation, you can create a Settlement Agreement (and Agreed Parenting Plan if applicable) to submit to the court. You will still be scheduled for a hearing at which time the judge will decide if your case is ready for a final decree.  

If you and your spouse cannot agree on how to settle on your divorce, your case will be scheduled for a trial. The judge will ask questions about the issues you disagree on and make a decision on how to divide debts, assets, property and custody. There may be witnesses called during a trial to help the judge decide. For more information, visit Calling Witnesses in Iowa Divorce and Custody Cases. The judge will then file the final decree with the court.  

After the final decree is signed by the judge and filed with the court, there are some housekeeping matters you will need to take care of, such as closing joint accounts, etc. For more examples, explore What Happens if you Do Not Change an Estate Plan in Iowa after a Divorce. Although it is possible to get a divorce without hiring an attorney, divorce can be a complicated process, and one should always seek legal advice whenever they are unsure about something. See How Hard Is It To Get A Divorce In Iowa? | Iowa Divorce Guide 2021 for more information.  

Disclaimer: The information provided on this blog is intended for general informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice on any subject matter. This information is not intended to create, and receipt or viewing does not constitute an attorney-client relationship. Each individual's legal needs are unique, and these materials may not be applicable to your legal situation. Always seek the advice of a competent attorney with any questions you may have regarding a legal issue. Do not disregard professional legal advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this blog.

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