Divorce takes longer than most people realize. The process can take more than a year, especially if significant assets or kids are involved. Here is a summary of a typical divorce timeline.
A separation period is usually required
The law in many states does not allow for couples to run to court and get divorced immediately after a big fight. The couple must usually be separated for a year or so before they can be divorced. This separation requirement is sometimes called a “waiting period” before a divorce. Typically a couple must live “separate and apart” during this waiting period, which usually means one spouse has to move out. If a couple reconciles and sleeps together after eight months, they may have to start all over again with another year-long waiting period.
Some states are reducing or eliminating the waiting period. For example, in Virginia, a couple must be separated for one year before they can get divorced unless one spouse committed a felony, adultery, or some other bad act. There is an exception, however, and a couple can get divorced after being separated for just six months if they have a signed separation agreement and there are no children involved. Maryland has made it even easier, and completely eliminated the waiting period for couples without children.
One or both spouses must petition for divorce
This is where a divorce can go many different ways. In an uncontested divorce, both spouses may jointly petition for divorce and present the judge with a proposed property split and custody arrangement that the judge can quickly approve.
If the divorce is contested, one spouse (or a lawyer for that spouse) will file the petition and then “serve” it on the other spouse, along with a “summons.” These documents require the other spouse to respond. Then each spouse may be given a period of “discovery,” where they are allowed to request information and documents from the other spouse. This is typically used to figure out how much money and other assets each side has.
Property and custody issues resolved by voluntary settlement
Most couples will come to a settlement agreement. This means they will agree on which spouse should keep which assets, and how the custody and visitation should work for their children. Oftentimes a mediator or other neutral third party will help broker the settlement. The parties agreement must be presented to a judge, who will review it and make sure it is fair. Judges are often particularly careful to make sure the divorcing couple is adequately caring for any children. If the parties cannot settle, then a judge or arbitrator must decide on property division, custody, and other issues.
In a trial or arbitration, a lawyer for each spouse will make their case for why their client should get certain assets or have certain custody rights. They may call witnesses and they may provide the court with documentary evidence. Common evidence will be bank records showing that one spouse is trying to hide assets or emails from a child showing that the child would prefer to live with one specific parent. After hearing all the evidence, a judge will issue a divorce decree that settles child custody, visitation, child support, spousal support, and property division.