When people decide to divorce, they often don't know what to expect. After all, divorce is a complicated legal process, and it can be full of unpleasant surprises and frustrating delays. It's always 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 help you feel more comfortable at an uncomfortable time.
The following chronology gives a general idea of how an average divorce will proceed, although your divorce may not follow the exact timeline below because of specific issues between you and your spouse or because of specific laws in your state.
Learn more about state-specific laws on our divorce law legal answers page, or download FindLaw's Guide to Getting a Divorce.
1. Starting the Divorce Legal Process
To start off 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), which 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. Divorce lawyers will help you navigate this aspect of family law.
2. Filing and Serving the Complaint
The lawyer files the petition or complaint with the court. There will be a filing fee required. The lawyer or the court makes sure that the petition/complaint is served on the other spouse, together with a summons that requires that spouse's response. The other spouse will be referred to as a “respondent."
3. Receiving Your Spouse's Answer to the Divorce Complaint
The served spouse has to answer within a certain time (usually about three weeks). The answer says whether or not the served spouse agrees with the petition/complaint. If he or she doesn't answer the petition/complaint, the court assumes that he or she agrees to its terms. The answer (also called a response) indicates how the served spouse would prefer to deal with divorce decisions.
4. Initiating the Property Division Process and Exchanging Documents
The couple exchanges documents and information on 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 alimony. The attorneys will help the couple determine which property is community property versus separate property.
5. Entering into Mediation or Settlement
Sometimes, the couple can voluntarily resolve some or all of their issues through mediation or settlement. Some states require that divorcing couples go through this process. During mediation, the couples and their attorneys will negotiate the terms of the divorce. These mediation meetings may be seen as 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 Any Settlement Agreement
If the judge approves the agreement, and the settlement agreement is uncontested, the judge signs the couple a divorce decree that shows what they agreed to. The couple is then legally divorced. If any of the 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. A trial date will be set by the court clerk.
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 his or her 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 marriage. The divorce is complete.
8. Appealing the Judge's Decision
Either or both 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, after trial, if there is something that needs to change, such as the child custody arrangement, you may be able to modify the divorce decree.
A Divorce Timeline: Wrap-Up
It's hard to say how long all these steps will take in your case and in your state. The entire process can take from as little as a few months, to as long as several years. Generally speaking, the more the couple can cooperate and agree to reasonable compromises, the smoother and faster the divorce will go.
If a situation is indicative of a highly 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.
Successfully Navigate Your Divorce Timeline with an Experienced Attorney
A knowledgeable divorce attorney can safely guide you through the divorce timeline of events 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, all the way through guidance on hearings, trials, and court orders, a divorce attorney will fight for your best interests. They will provide helpful, resourceful legal advice for your divorce case.