Understanding the legal aspects of divorce in Vermont are essential for you to survive the complex challenges facing you.
Even if you have an attorney, you also need to educate yourself on the legalities of divorce.
Here are some of the key divorce laws in Vermont that will help you better understand what lies ahead.
- Basic Divorce Laws in Vermont
- How is the Division of Property Handled?
- Retirement Plans and Pensions
- Determining Alimony (Spousal Maintenance)
- How is Child Support Calculated?
- Child Custody
Basic Divorce Laws in Vermont
You must be a resident of Vermont for at least six months before you can file. Also, your divorce can’t be finalized until you have lived in the state for a minimum of one year at the time of the final divorce hearing.
After you are served with papers, you have 21 days to file a response, or you run the risk of a default judgment against you.
Vermont allows both no-fault and fault-based divorces. In a no-fault divorce, a couple must only be separated by mutual agreement from each other for six months before filing for divorce. That amount of time extends to one year if both parties are not in agreement.
Fault-based grounds for divorce or separation include:
- The confinement of either party in prison for three years or more.
- Intolerable severity such as threats to life, limb or health of the other party.
- Willful desertion when either party has been absent for seven years and not heard from during that time
- Persistent refusal or neglect
- Incurable insanity.
A final divorce hearing cannot be scheduled until you have been separated (maintaining separate lives even if living in the same home) for at least six months.
When you can agree on all terms prior to filing, your divorce will be quicker and easier. This is called an uncontested or stipulated divorce.
Visit the Vermont Judiciary website to find out all the forms you will need in order to enter into a stipulated divorce.
If you disagree on issues, you may want to retain a lawyer. This is a contested divorce and you may need assistance protecting your rights when it comes to alimony, child custody and support or a division of marital assets.
If you have more questions about how to do your own divorce or need help filling out the court forms, visit a local legal clinic. View a list of legal clinics and projects around Vermont on the Vermont Bar Association website.
Vermont is an equitable distribution state. This means assets are divided fairly and equitably, but not always on a 50/50 basis. The court must consider several factors before approving how assets are divided. Marital debts are also treated in a similar fashion.
Alimony can either be long-term or short-term. Court use several factors to determine the amount and duration.
Child support is determined by state guidelines. Other factors can influence amounts in some cases.
You generally have to wait six months after you file before you have a divorce hearing. If a judge approves your divorce, there is a three-month waiting period before the divorce is final. You have 30 days to appeal a final settlement.
How is the Division of Property Handled?
In Vermont, most all property you own is considered marital property. It is considered marital property whether you own it jointly or one of you owns it individually. Marital property can include property that:
- you acquired during the marriage from your earnings during the marriage
- you brought into the marriage
- you inherited during the marriage
- you received as a gift during the marriage
- is titled solely to you or listed only in your name
Courts will divide property equitably, but this does not necessarily mean equally. You should attempt to try and reach an agreement on your own, but when you can’t the court will step in and decide this for you.
By law, a Vermont court has to look at these factors when dividing property:
- The length of the marriage
- The age and health of the parties
- The job, source and amount of income of each of the parties
- The vocational skills and employability of each spouse
- The contribution by one spouse to the education, training, or increased earning power of the other
- The value of all property interests, liabilities, and needs of each party
- Whether the property settlement is to be awarded instead of, or in addition to, spousal maintenance
- The opportunity of each party to get capital assets, income, or inheritance in the future
- The desirability of awarding the family home or the right to live there for a reasonable period to the spouse having custody of the children
- The party through whom the property was acquired
- The contribution of each spouse in the acquisition, preservation, and depreciation or appreciation in value of the respective estates, including the non-monetary contribution of a spouse as a homemaker
- The respective merits of the parties (for instance, whether either party was abusive, committed adultery, or was an alcoholic)
Retirement Plans and Pensions
Pensions and 401k plans that are earned during a marriage are considered marital property and must be divided like other assets in Vermont.
This means they are subject to fair and equitable distribution, but not equal distribution. In some cases, to preserve their pensions, spouses may agree to give up interests in other assets to achieve equity.
Placing an exact value on pensions and retirement accounts can be complicated. For this reason, it’s common to an expert such as a certified divorce financial analyst, accountant, pension valuator, actuary, or business appraiser to reach an accurate figure.
Once the value for each spouse has been determined, each retirement account is split according to the settlement agreement. To do this, an attorney or a specialized firm must create a qualified domestic relations order, often referred to as a QDRO. QDROs must follow federal laws. Most retirement plans also have their own requirements that must be followed as well.
The QDRO spells out in detail how the retirement account will be split. It is submitted to the plan administrator and the court for approval.
A QDRO, when executed, makes a spouse an alternate payee, and the account is divided according to the instructions in the document.
After the court signs a QDRO, you will need to serve it on the plan administrator. You are responsible for serving the QDRO on the plan administrator, and for responding to any follow-up.
Dividing Bank Accounts
Any bank accounts with assets that were acquired during the course of the marriage are considered marital property in Vermont and must be divided equitably.
If you have a separate bank account from before the marriage, and the assets are kept separate, you may be able to make the case that the funds in the account are your assets only.
Also, if you inherit a sum of money and you place it in a separate account, those funds will remain separate. However, if you place inheritances or gifts into accounts jointly owned by both spouses, those assets can become marital property and will split accordingly.
What About Debts?
Debts are treated much the same way as assets in a divorce. Either the spouses must decide how they are to be divided, or the courts will decide for them.
Even if you do decide how to best divide debts, it’s important to note that creditors may hold you responsible even if the debt is assigned to your spouse.
If it is a joint debt, the creditor can try to collect from either one of you. That’s also true if the court orders your spouse to pay one or more of your joint debts. Your divorce does not free you from joint debts in the eyes of creditors.
However, creditors can’t collect from you for the individual debts of your spouse. This might include debt on credit cards solely in your spouse’s name, or loans your spouse took out alone.
In some cases, you may need to consult with an attorney to decide how to best protect yourself.
Determining Alimony (Spousal Maintenance)
A spouse may be entitled to spousal maintenance to ease the hardship of divorce for a financially dependent spouse.
The court may order compensatory maintenance for a long term, or “rehabilitative maintenance” for a short-term.
Vermont courts decide whether to award spousal maintenance, which kind to award, and how much to award based on the facts of each case.
For example, long-term maintenance may be appropriate if:
- There is a significant difference between the incomes of the spouses
- There has been a long marriage during which the dependent spouse was a homemaker
- The spouse will never be able to earn enough to live in the lifestyle established during the marriage
To reach a decision, the court must consider several possible factors in determining the amount and duration of support. Those factors include:
- The income and property available to the spouse who is asking for maintenance (including property awarded to that spouse)
- The spouse’s ability to meet their needs (including whether the child support order includes any sum for the spouse, such as a housing allowance)
- The time and money the spouse will need to get the education or training needed to find appropriate work
- The standard of living during the marriage
- The length of the marriage
- The age and the physical and emotional condition of each spouse
- The ability of the paying spouse to meet their reasonable needs while also meeting the needs of the other spouse
- Adjustments for inflation
Unlike other states, sometimes a Vermont court will order that you can stop paying spousal maintenance if your ex-spouse remarries. But courts do not always do that, because the remarriage may not result in more financial security.
A final spousal maintenance order can be modified, but only if there is a real, substantial, and unanticipated change of circumstances.
Read More: Everything You Need to Know About Alimony
How is Child Support Calculated?
Vermont uses established child support guidelines to calculate child support amounts.
It takes into account many factors, including the income of both parents and the amount of time the child spends with each parent. If you have other children with a different parent, that will also be considered.
For most families, the court will order the amount calculated based on the child support guideline. But because some parents earn much more or much less than the presumptive amounts, you can ask the court to consider the following factors to set a different amount of child support:
- the financial resources of the child
- the financial resources of the parent who has custody
- the financial resources and needs of the parent who does not have custody
- the standard of living the child would have enjoyed if the parents had continued to live together
- the physical and emotional condition of the child
- the educational needs of the child
- the educational needs of either parent, if the education will increase the earning capacity of the parent
- extraordinary travel expenses needed for visitation (“parent-child contact”)
- any other reason the judge or magistrate finds important
Read More: The Ultimate Guide to Child Support
If you and your spouse have minor children, custody will need to be determined as part of your divorce.
Both legal and physical custody will need to be determined.
Physical responsibility is where your child lives. The person who has physical responsibility takes care of the child’s day-to-day needs but a court can order that physical responsibility be in one or both parents if both parents agree. If a court is asked to choose, they have to pick one parent.
Legal responsibility is who has the right to make major decisions about the child’s life. A court can order that legal responsibility be in one or both parents and will include issues such as medical decisions, church and school attendance and travel outside of Vermont.
If parents can’t agree about what should happen with their children, the court will decide who gets physical and legal responsibilities. This happens at a “contested hearing” which is a trial in front of a judge.
The evidence is usually testimony from parents, teachers, doctors and other people who know your child, you and the other parent.
The court considers certain factors to make its decision. The most important factor is what the court believes will be best interests for a child.
These factors may include things like:
- the child’s wishes, if of sufficient age
- if family violence, drug abuse or sexual abuse is present
- any history of neglect or emotional abuse of a child by a parent
- the overall quality of the parent-child relationship
- each party’s history of caregiving or parenting prior and subsequent to separation
- the emotional, safety, educational, and physical health needs of the child
- the child’s need for relationships with siblings
- any evidence of past or current drug or alcohol abuse by a party
- the mental health of each parent
- the areas and levels of conflict present within the family
The impact of substance abuse
Substance abuse may place a child in danger and as such, if abuse is present, custody and visitation can be restricted or denied by the court.
When a parent begins to abuse drugs or alcohol after a divorce is finalized, then the other parent can seek a modification of current custody and visitation orders to protect the child.
What role does domestic violence play?
If you are experiencing domestic violence, the first thing you must do is protect your safety and the safety of anyone else being threatened. Call 911 if needed and vacate your premises immediately.
Domestic violence has a major impact on child custody and visitation. If the court feels that a child is in physical or psychological danger, visitation can be denied, restricted or take place under supervision.
Vermont Divorce FAQs
How is adultery treated in Vermont divorce laws?
Adultery and abuse are fault-based grounds for divorce but they are not relevant to spousal maintenance. They may have an impact on child custody if it can be shown these actions are not in the best interests of the child.
What is a bifurcation of marital status, and how does it work?
In some cases, Vermont courts will allow a couple to divide a divorce into two separate legal actions.
This is known as bifurcation and may be employed when most issues can be resolved, but a few issues could take a long time to adjudicate.
A limited trial may be held at a later date that will focus only on unresolved issues. Bifurcation lets a couple get a divorce and to approve a partial settlement until the other issues are resolved.
Judges are very reluctant to grant bifurcated divorces because of judicial inefficiencies and because there is less incentive to finalize a divorce.
What are disclosure obligations?
By law, you must disclose all your assets, income, debts and other financial obligations to your spouse and the court so that a fair division of assets can take place.
You and your spouse must both complete relevant forms and exchange them as part of your case.
What about health insurance during and after divorce?
Vermont law requires that 18 months of continuation be provided when group hospital, medical, and dental coverage would be lost in a divorce, or legal separation.
A spouse may also be required to pay for health insurance after a divorce if it is built into the settlement agreement.
In all cases, courts will make sure that children have adequate health insurance, regardless of other circumstances.
The ex-spouse who is not covered will need to find insurance through other means, perhaps through COBRA or in the insurance marketplace.
Are there special rules and considerations for military divorces?
If you or your spouse are in the armed forces, you can get a divorce in Vermont if you live in the state or you’ve been present in the state for a continuous period of six months.
While many issues are handled the same as they are in civilian divorces, there are a few notable differences.
For example, child custody and visitation issues can be more complicated due to relocation or deployment orders. Child support is determined the same way as it is for civilian cases. All military personnel are expected to support their children.
Military pay may be withheld. Federal law provides a limit of 50 percent on the amount that is subject to withholding for a person supporting other dependents, such as a spouse or dependent child, and 60 percent for a person who is not.
Also, pursuant to the Service Members’ Civil Relief Act, and the Uniformed Services Former Spouses’ Protection Act (USFSPA) of 1982, active-duty members are afforded certain protections.
For example, a military spouse can request a delay in divorce proceedings so that his or her military duties are not impacted. Legal action can be delayed when he or she is on active duty plus 60 days beyond the end of his or her enlistment. The court must appoint an attorney to represent the parent who is a military service member before the judge enters a default judgment.
The USFSPA also governs how military pensions are disbursed and whether or not a former military spouse has full medical and commissary privileges.
For this to happen, the former spouse must have been married at least 20 years; the military spouse had at least 20 years of creditable service, and those two overlapped by at least 20 years.
What if my spouse does not respond to any divorce actions in a timely way?
Your spouse has 21 days to file a response after being served with paperwork. If they choose not to respond, a judge can issue a default judgment for your divorce.
It is possible for a defendant in Vermont to request an extension to file a response beyond the 21 days.
In all cases, it is usually best to respond to the initial complaint to protect your interests.
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