If you and your spouse have made the decision to seek a divorce, you probably want to get through the unhappy process as fast and painlessly as possible. At the same time, you might have seen the divorces of friends and family members drag on for years. (Heck, it took Maria Shriver and Arnold “The Governator” Schwarzenegger 10 years to finalize their divorce!).
So, exactly how long does divorce take?
The frustrating answer is that it depends on a lot of factors. Some you can control and others you can’t. In this article, we’ll break down each stage of the divorce process and then dig into specific elements that can add or save time on your divorce.
But first, we’ll look at the two biggest factors that will impact the length of your divorce.
Contested vs. Uncontested Divorce
One of the biggest factors that determines how long a divorce is going to take comes down to whether you and your spouse are on the same page or not.
If you both can come to an agreement on the major issues – we’re talking who gets custody of the kids, how to split up your money and other assets, who pays what kind of support, and so on – then you’ve got an uncontested divorce on your hands. This is when you and your soon-to-be-ex work together to hammer out the details, without needing lawyers and judges to get involved.
An uncontested divorce can be wrapped up in a matter of months, sometimes even less if you’re really cooperating. If you want a speedy divorce, compromise and collaboration are key.
But when spouses duke it out over disagreements, that’s called a contested divorce. Now the lawyers are calling the shots, dragging each other into court over every little issue, and the whole process gets held up big time.
Fighting over custody arrangements, financial divisions, property – you name it – can draw out a divorce for months or even years. The timeline for divorce slows down dramatically while you wait for your day in court to argue it out in front of the judge.
The Complexity of Your Estate
Even amicable exes can end up in divorce purgatory if they’ve been married a long time and have lots of joint assets that need untangling. Lawyers call this having a “complex marital estate.” Fancy phrase, simple meaning – it’s just a lot of stuff to sort out.
A complex marital estate may include things like multiple houses and investment properties, stock options, 401ks, pensions, businesses that need valuing and dividing up, and other financial assets. If you and your spouse built up a big net worth together, it takes time to catalog it all and agree on who gets what.
You’ve got to look up deeds, bank statements, tax returns, credit reports, and anything else related to the properties and accounts you shared. Your lawyers might even need to seek professional appraisals or bring in expert witnesses to testify on valuations.
Even with divorcing duos who get along perfectly, the logistics of itemizing and distributing a huge combined estate drags out your divorce timeline. Months can be spent tracking down paperwork, assessing assets, and hashing out the details.
On the flip side of the coin, if you and your spouse haven’t been married long and don’t have a lot of assets, your marital estate may be relatively simple to divide. (Especially if you two are playing nice.)
The Timing of Each Stage of Divorce
Divorce is a legal process that requires specific steps. Each step will add time to the divorce process. How much time? See the two sections above. If your spouse contests the divorce, they can drag out each step. Additionally, a complex marital estate can add time to certain steps as well.
Filing a Petition for Divorce
The divorce process starts with one spouse filing the initial divorce petition, also called the complaint or summons. This document lays out important information like the grounds for divorce, requests for child custody or spousal support, and more.
To file the petition, you or your attorney will submit it along with any other necessary paperwork to the court clerk’s office in the appropriate jurisdiction. This is usually the county where you or your spouse live. Paperwork requirements vary by state but generally include forms like a summons, party information sheets, and financial affidavits.
You or your lawyer file the petition with the court clerk and pay the filing fee (which can range from a couple hundred to a few thousand dollars). Once the petition is submitted, the clerk opens a case file and issues a case number.
Overall, filing the initial divorce petition can take anywhere from a few days up to a couple of weeks depending on how long it takes to prepare the paperwork and schedule an appointment with the court clerk’s office. But once it’s filed, the divorce gears start turning and the process moves forward.
Serving Your Spouse
Once the petition for divorce is filed, the next step is properly serving your spouse with the summons and petition. These divorce papers must be legally served to your spouse to notify them that the process is starting.
There are a few options for serving. The easiest is for you to give the papers to your spouse if the two of you working through the divorce together. Another popular option is to have a professional process server personally deliver the papers. You can also send your spouse the papers through certified mail with a return receipt required. Some states allow service by publication in a newspaper if your spouse’s location is unknown.
No matter the method, proper documentation must be filed with the court showing proof that your spouse was served. This affidavit of service confirms the date and place your spouse received legal notice.
Getting the divorce papers formally served can take anywhere from a single day up to a few weeks. Personal service is usually fastest assuming a process server can locate and deliver summons papers quickly. Service by certified mail or publication tends to take longer.
The exact timeline varies case by case. But once the affidavit is filed verifying service, the countdown starts for your spouse to formally respond. Overall, expect the service step to take about one to three weeks.
After your spouse is served divorce papers, the clock starts ticking for them to provide an official response to the court. This is their big chance to speak up if they disagree about something you asked for in the filing. Whether it’s contesting custody arrangements, or saying your property division math is off base, now’s their time to argue their side.
The timeframe to respond is defined by each state but is usually around 30 days from the date they received service. (That deadline can be extended in certain special circumstances, such as if your spouse is serving overseas.) The court won’t move forward with the case until your spouse formally replies to the petition or this response window lapses.
If your spouse fails to respond in time, you can request a default judgment, awarding what you asked for in the initial filing. But if your ex responds on time and contests your claims, get ready for some legal volleys.
The response usually looks like an answer addressing your divorce petition allegations, plus a counter-petition if they want to make their own claims. Getting the response shapes the divorce trajectory. An objection over child custody or asset division puts you on the path to a contested case. Complete agreement sets up an uncontested process.
But at this stage, expect a wait of around 30 days after service for the response timeline. What happens next depends on whether you’ll be navigating an amicable or disputed divorce.
The Discovery Phase
After the divorce petition is filed and served, the divorce enters the discovery phase. This legal process involves the spouses gathering information, sharing documents, and disclosing assets. (You can speed up this phase using our divorce document checklist.)
Discovery ensures each spouse knows the full financial picture of their marital property before negotiating a settlement. It aims to prevent spouses from hiding assets and to ensure equitable property division.
You and your divorce lawyer can use several common tactics during the discovery phase, like document production requests, written interrogatories with questions, and depositions under oath. Each spouse will need to disclose tax returns, bank statements, credit card records, mortgage info, investment and retirement accounts, and more.
The complexity of your marital estate will determine how long the discovery stage takes. If you and your spouse have a simple estate, dividing limited finances and property may take only weeks. On the other hand, unearthing all the details around extensive business interests or real estate investments could span many months.
Vindictive spouses who want to create a difficult divorce can slow down this process by refusing to share documents or answer questions fully. In this case, your divorce attorney may need to file court motions to compel compliance. Additionally, if your spouse tries to hide assets, it will delay the discovery process and lengthen the overall divorce proceedings.
On average, expect the discovery phase to take around 3-6 months for typical cases. But in cases of contentious spouses or spouses with high net worth marital estates, be prepared for prolonged discovery that could take a year or more.
The Negotiation Phase
After the financial fact-finding mission of discovery, it’s time to sit down and hammer out the details of who gets what in the divorce. This negotiation period is when spouses and attorneys try to reach an agreement on the division of assets, determining spousal support and child custody, and settling any other issues.
If you two can’t reach an agreement across the table, then it’s off to court for a long, drawn-out legal fight. But many couples manage to negotiate a mutually acceptable settlement. How long this takes depends on a few key things:
- Level of Disagreement – Spouses who see eye-to-eye can wrap things up quickly. Lots of fighting over the fine print drags it out.
- Number of Assets – Just a house and bank account? Easy. A complicated business portfolio? That’ll take some time to split up.
- Desire to Mediate – Using a mediator can really help feuding couples find common ground.
- Willingness to Compromise – Negotiations go more smoothly when each spouse gives a little. Stubbornness leads to standstills.
- Lawyers’ Approaches – Attorneys who fan the flames of conflict just rack up billing hours. If you want a quicker divorce, choose a lawyer who focuses on collaboration rather than fighting.
For couples who play nice and keep it simple, settlement deals can come together in weeks. Highly disputed, asset-rich divorces can take many months to iron out. On average, expect around 2-3 months of negotiating before inking the final docs.
Divorce mediation is a common part of the negotiation phase of divorce. It’s a process where a neutral third-party mediator helps facilitate agreements between spouses going through a divorce. It aims to settle issues and reach a compromise without going to court. A successful mediation can often help speed up the divorce process. (Take a look at our mediation checklist.)
In mediation sessions, the spouses meet together with the mediator. They identify topics of disagreement, discuss their needs and interests, and work toward fair solutions with the mediator’s guidance. Resolving financial division, child-related matters, the division of property, and more may be covered.
Mediation is voluntary but offers a faster and less expensive option than prolonged legal battles. It also gives spouses more control over the outcome. Many states require trying mediation before going to trial.
For successful mediation, spouses must be willing to negotiate reasonably and in good faith. Mediation can fall apart if one spouse is unwilling to compromise or acts obstructively.
The mediation timeline varies based on the complexity of issues and the willingness to find common ground. In straightforward cases with cooperative spouses, a divorce agreement can be reached in just a few sessions over 2-3 months. High conflict cases often need more sessions over many months.
On average, those who commit fully to the mediation process can complete it in 3-5 months, avoiding months or years in court. This makes mediation an attractive alternative for spouses seeking faster divorce finalization.
When spouses cannot agree on key divorce issues like property division and child custody, the case becomes contested and heads to trial before a judge. This litigation process is lengthy and can significantly prolong finalizing the divorce.
When divorce negotiations go to court, lawyers file motions, gather evidence, take depositions, and conduct witness preparation.
Pre-trial hearings are needed to argue motions, work out evidentiary issues, and handle other court business. This all takes substantial time before the case ever gets before a judge at trial.
On that note, the attorneys will also need to schedule a trial date on the court’s busy calendar. Judges have limited availability and scheduling conflicts between the attorneys can add delays.
Once at trial, presenting arguments, witness testimony, cross-examinations, and evidence submission take days or weeks. The judge then needs weeks or months more to make final rulings. Appeals may follow.
Contested divorce litigation can easily drag on for months or even years in some cases while costing both spouses huge sums in legal fees and inflicting a heavy emotional cost.
Once a settlement agreement is reached or a trial judgment is obtained, some states require a set waiting period before the divorce can be finalized. This mandatory waiting period provides a cooling-off window for reflection and a chance to change course if either spouse has second thoughts.
Waiting periods are mandatory in a handful of states and range from 20 days up to 6 months. Even in states without required waiting periods, there is usually a procedural lag of a month or two between reaching a settlement and obtaining the final divorce decree.
These waiting intervals give spouses time to finalize any remaining legal steps. This may include filing financial disclosures, getting documents notarized, meeting residency requirements, and more. Judges also use this time to review terms and ensure agreements are appropriate before giving final approval.
Eager spouses can find these final delays frustrating after the lengthy divorce proceedings. However, treat this stretch as a time to tie up loose ends financially, work through any lingering grievances, and ready yourself for legal closure.
Once all the divorce proceedings are complete, the final step is attending a court hearing to formally finalize the divorce. This last hearing completes all legal requirements for the judge to grant a final decree dissolving the marriage.
The final hearing is relatively straightforward in uncontested cases with spouses already agreeing on a divorce settlement. The judge reviews the filed paperwork, asks any clarifying questions, and ensures the settlement is fair and equitable.
For contested divorces, the final hearing serves as a trial where remaining issues are argued before the judge through witness testimony and evidence presentation. This takes much longer – often spanning days. (See our earlier section on divorce litigation.)
Scheduling the final hearing date depends on court calendars and judge availability. Uncontested hearings may occur in 1-2 months. Contested divorce trials may be scheduled many months out due to full court dockets.
The hearing itself also varies in length. Simple uncontested hearings wrap up in under an hour. Contested hearings with complex assets or bitter custody disputes can drag into days or weeks before the judge makes final rulings.
The Finalization of a Divorce
Once the final divorce hearing has concluded, whether through an uncontested approval or contested litigation, the last step is finalizing all the legal paperwork to make the divorce settlement official. This last phase usually takes 1-2 months after the final hearing date.
First, the presiding judge needs to take time to make any final considerations and officially sign the divorce decree and judgment forms. Contested cases with disputes require more time for the judge to make equitable rulings. Simple uncontested divorces may only take the judge a few weeks to finalize the paperwork.
After the judge signs off and the court clerk files the records, certified copies need to be obtained for each spouse’s records. Minor delays can occur while waiting for the court clerk to prepare and stamp the completed divorce documents.
Lawyers will go over the final orders with their clients to ensure the terms match what was agreed upon or litigated. If any mistakes are found, amendments may be needed before the divorce is legally binding.
Once all paperwork is properly filed, signed, and distributed, the divorce is deemed finalized from a legal standpoint. This marks the end of what can be a long and difficult journey for spouses seeking closure.
Altogether, after months or years of divorce proceedings, spouses can expect the court formalities around finalization to take about 1-2 months following the trial or the final hearing.
How Long Will Your Divorce Take?
How long does a divorce take? That’s the question we started with at the beginning of this article. The answer is that a divorce timeline can span anywhere from a few months for the quickest divorce to a decade or more depending on your individual circumstances. Hopefully, this article has clarified what the divorce process looks like and the factors that can either speed up the process or slow it down.
At the end of the day, even if you feel angry, betrayed, or heartbroken over your divorce, trying to “punish” your spouse by delaying the process will only end up hurting you both. Approaching the divorce process with a respectful and collaborative spirit can make the difficult situation move more quickly and smoothly, saving you lots of money and heartbreak. A faster divorce will also let you move on to the next chapter of your life with less delay.
If you would like more information about the divorce process from local divorce professionals who can answer your personal questions, consider signing up for a Second Saturday Divorce Workshop near you.