When people decide to divorce or go through a dissolution of marriage, they often don't know what to expect. After all, divorce is a complicated legal process. It can be full of unpleasant surprises and frustrating delays. It's helpful to review a legal divorce timeline to give you a general understanding of what's likely to happen during your divorce case so you can feel more comfortable at an uncomfortable time.
The following chronology gives a general idea of how an average divorce will proceed. However, your divorce may not follow the timeline below because of specific issues between you and your spouse or specific laws in your state.
Learn more about state-specific laws by downloading FindLaw's Guide to Getting a Divorce.
1. Starting the Divorce Legal Process
To start the divorce, one of the spouses gets a lawyer (or they may choose to represent themselves), who writes up a divorce petition (also known as a complaint). A divorce petition is a legal document that says why the spouse wants a divorce and how he or she wants to settle finances, custody, and other issues. A family law attorney will help you navigate this aspect of the process. An attorney will also advise you if a legal separation is necessary while the divorce proceeds. A legal separation can establish child custody and child support or spousal support during the divorce.
You may also choose to represent yourself. This may be a good option if you have an uncontested divorce.
2. Filing and Serving the Complaint
The divorce lawyer files the petition or complaint with the court. There will be a filing fee required. Some states may also require that you and your ex-spouse live apart for a certain amount of time or have a waiting period before you can file for dissolution. Some states will require a waiting period after you file before you can move forward.
The lawyer or the court makes sure that a process server serves the petition/complaint upon the other spouse, together with a summons that requires that spouse's response. The other spouse will be referred to as a “respondent." Avoiding service of process will not prevent a divorce.
3. Receiving Your Spouse's Answer to the Divorce Complaint
The served spouse has to answer your petition within a certain amount of time, usually about three weeks. The answer or response says how the served spouse would prefer to deal with divorce decisions. The answer will also say whether the served spouse agrees with the petition/complaint. If they don't answer the petition/complaint, the court assumes they agree to its terms and will grant the divorce as a default divorce.
4. Starting the Property Division Process and Exchanging Documents
The couple exchanges documents and information about issues such as property and income. By examining this information, the couple and the court can decide how to divide up property and how to deal with child support and spousal maintenance or alimony. The attorneys will help the couple determine marital property, such as which is community property and which is separate property.
5. Entering Mediation or Settlement
Sometimes, the couple can voluntarily resolve some or all of their issues through mediation. Some states require that divorcing couples go through this process. During mediation, the couples and their attorneys will negotiate the divorce terms. These mediation meetings may be called settlement conferences.
If a settlement is reached, the marital settlement agreement is shown to a judge at an informal court hearing. The judge will ask a few basic factual questions and whether each party understands and chooses to sign the agreement.
6. Obtaining Court Approval for a Settlement Agreement
If the judge approves the agreement and there is an uncontested divorce settlement agreement, the judge signs a divorce decree that shows what they agreed to. The couple is then legally divorced. If any issues are contested, or the judge does not approve the marital settlement agreement, the next step is for the divorce case to go to trial. The court clerk will set a trial date.
7. Proceeding to a Divorce Trial
At trial, evidence and arguments are presented by each side, and the judge decides on any unresolved issues, including child custody and visitation, child and spousal support, and property division. Once the judge has reached their decision, the judge grants the divorce. They will sign the divorce papers and enter a final judgment for the couple. This will legally close the divorce proceedings and result in the dissolution of the marriage. The divorce is complete.
8. Appealing the Judge's Decision
Either or both ex-spouses can appeal a judge's decision to a higher court. But it's unusual for an appeals court to overturn a judge's decision. Also, remember that settlements usually cannot be appealed if both spouses agree to their terms. However, if something needs to change, such as the child custody arrangement, you may be able to ask a court to modify the divorce decree.
A Divorce Timeline: Wrap-Up
It's hard to say how long or how time-consuming these steps will take in your case and your state. The entire process can take from as little as a few months to as long as several years. For instance, in Texas, the spouses must wait 61 days after filing their divorce petition, whether contested or not. The more the couple can cooperate and make reasonable compromises, the smoother and faster the divorce will go.
If a situation may result in a hotly contested divorce, there may be options for spouses who feel in danger. If there is fear of domestic violence, courts may get involved by issuing temporary orders, such as restraining orders and temporary child custody arrangements.
If you are in an unsafe relationship, it is advisable to have an attorney on your side. For more information about the resources available, please see FindLaw's section on Domestic Violence.
Successfully Navigate Your Divorce Timeline With an Experienced Attorney
A knowledgeable divorce attorney can safely guide you through the divorce timeline and protect your peace of mind, often spotting issues before they become real problems. The divorce process can be complicated and full of emotions.
From initial coaching on what documents to bring to your first consultation through guidance on hearings, trials, and court orders, a divorce attorney will fight for your best interests. They will provide helpful and resourceful legal advice for your divorce case.