First I am not an attorney, and thankfully during our separation we never got into the court system. My wife hired an attorney, and I talked to our farm attorney to get an overview of the law. We had a mediator who was not an attorney but who was well versed in law.
I am writing this as a primer for anyone who finds themself suddenly faced with a divorce or separation and who, like me, is clueless about family law. I had two courses of business law in college and over the years was the go-to person for farm legal issues in our family, but when it came to family law, I don't think I knew the difference between a divorce and a dissolution.
At the time of our separation we lived in Ohio, so the little bit I know about family law is mostly from an Ohio perspective. Good resources for family law are on the web where you can search for things like divorce, separation, or remarriage. There are lots of free web sites by states and legal groups that will give you the basics. Of course, there are lots of ads to be sifted through also. Another good place to research is the law section in a bookstore, and also in marriage and family or relationship sections. Public libraries, tend to have wealth of resources.
From what I have been told, most attorneys will give a free short consultation to review your situation. In most places you have a right to represent yourself. I think that is called pro-se. There are lots of resources out there for that. Sometimes there are paralegals and such that will help you walk through some of the steps, but not give you full blown representation. The courts themselves often have lots of information. In general, family law is a function of each state, and then each county has its own procedures also.
I think, but am not sure, that there may be some standardization nationwide for some child support issues. One thing I have heard is that some attorneys try their best to have the most peaceful and amicable settlement as possible and to do as much negotiation out of court as possible. Others are fully willing to use the law as aggressively as possible for maximum advantage for their clients.
Now for my layman's overview. (Again, I am NOT an attorney, so you will need to research this for yourself.)
A divorce is a lawsuit where one partner in a marriage sues the other for divorce. It used to be that the party wanting out of the marriage had to prove some sort of fault in the other like adultery. Now, apparently most of the nation has no-fault divorce. Eventually, if a partner wants out of a marriage they can get out. As in any lawsuit there are all sorts of procedures, time deadlines, etc. The partner filing for divorce sometimes as a strategy asks for everything including the kitchen sink. Eventually, a judge will make a final determination, which, at least in some situations, is appealable. A divorce where the party filed against does not agree with everything the other person filed for is called a contested divorce.
A dissolution is a voluntary agreement by a married couple to ask the court to dissolve their marriage. Before the court will approve it, all issues such as finances, child support, and more, have to be agreed upon by the parties.
A legal separation is an agreement where a married couple agree to live apart but remain married. They agree to issues such as finances, child support, etc.
As usual, legal terminology can be confusing. In all cases, divorce, dissolution, separation, there is a document called a separation agreement. This is a master agreement between the parties that details all of the decisions about finances, child support, child custody, alimony, etc. A dissolution won't happen until the couple has agreed on all of those things. In a divorce, on the issues where the couple don't agree, the judge decides. My best understanding is that, in general, child support is determined by a formula that looks at lots of economic factors, then the judge normally has some discretion to modify it or allow it to be modified based upon the particular circumstances.
Sometimes there is a mediator involved. A mediator works with a couple to work out their separation agreement privately. Some couples will voluntarily use them if they can't agree between themselves, but don't want the expense of a court fight. Sometimes I believe the court can order or at least strongly suggest that a couple try mediation, before taking up the court's time and resources with a full blown contested divorce.
Another whole aspect of family law is called protective orders. This is where someone does not feel safe with their spouse and asks the court to protect them by ordering their spouse, on threat of arrest, to limit contact with them. Here I am a little more familiar with MD law because I have watched some people deal with these. Again, all of this goes by state, but in MD I think it is relatively easy for a spouse to file a form with the court for a protective order. The court can fairly quickly put one in place to protect people they believe may be in imminent danger, but then a hearing is scheduled to determine the facts and make longer term decisions. Men, if you have a major struggle with anger, be aware your wife and kids maybe scared of you more than you realize. Please seek out and get professional help immediately. Far better than facing a protective order. Well, I hope this has been a helpful and accurate overview of some very complex and emotionally scary topics.