Every divorce is unique and comes with particular issues and challenges. Unfortunately, this makes the question of how long the divorce will take difficult to answer reliably.
However, there are a variety of factors that can impact how long the divorce proceedings last. These include California’s six month minimum rule, the relationships between the parties, the complexity of the financial situation, and the type of lawyers that the spouses retain. Before delving into these factors and how they can impact the speed of the proceedings, it can be helpful to have a basic understanding of the different steps of a divorce.
To begin the divorce proceedings, the spouse seeking a divorce (“the petitioner”) must file a set of papers with the court. These papers are just forms that contain requests for basic biographical information, high-level facts about the marriage, and the petitioner’s preferred outcome for issues like child custody.
After filing these forms with the court, they must next be served on the other spouse (“the respondent”). This usually involves hiring someone called a process server to deliver the papers and notify the respondent that there is now a legal proceeding involving them. The respondent then gets a chance to answer the petition. This response is another stock form, with fields similar to the petition that started the case.
After the notice, the Respondent has 30 days to file a response to the petition. Following the response, hearings for things like temporary support and restraining orders will occur, if necessary, and the case will move into the “discovery phase.”
Once the respondent files their paperwork, the case moves on to the next phase. There may be some preliminary conferences between the judge and the attorneys to set up procedures, and then the financial disclosures and discovery can begin. The financial disclosures are another set of forms to be filed with the court, often at the same time as the initial petition, but no later than 60 days after the petition. These forms just detail the marital assets, spousal income, and similar financial information, and both spouses must complete a copy of them.
Following an examination of the disclosures, the attorneys may request further discovery. The discovery process involves three tools: interrogatories, depositions, and requests for document production. An interrogatory is a written questionnaire prepared by one attorney and sent to the other party for them to answer. A deposition is an interview that an attorney conducts on other parties or on witnesses. A request for document production allows an attorney to compel the other party to provide them with relevant documents, like financial statements or tax returns. The discovery process can also involve an examination of people or property under court supervision, such as a court-ordered psychological exam.
It is possible for both parties to reach a settlement that will make them both happy and allow them to avoid court. If the parties complete discovery and fail to reach a settlement, then the case will enter the trial phase, where the judge makes final decisions about issues like custody, support obligations, and property division. However, even if the parties reach a settlement, the divorce cannot be granted until six months from date the Petition and Summons have been served. Even prior to the divorce being granted, the settlement is valid once is it signed. Even if the parties submit a judgment to the court, it can take several months before the judge signs the judgment.
The six month minimum rule, California Family Code Section 2339, requires that the divorce judgment cannot be entered. This clock starts running as soon as the Respondent has been served or accepts service of the Summons and Petition. It is important to understand exactly what this rule is and what it is not. It acts as a minimum, not a maximum, nor is a divorce entered automatically when the six months have passed. The judge cannot issue a divorce decree until six months have passed, but that does not mean all divorces will wrap up at that point. There are many issues that can push a divorce beyond the six month minimum waiting period.
The length of the divorce process is going to be a function of many things like the relationship of the spouses to each other, the need for discovery, and the aggressiveness of the lawyers that the spouses hire. However, all of these can really be summed up by saying that the more amenable the parties are to reaching a mutually agreeable settlement, the quicker the process will be. This is because the longest parts of the divorce are often the discovery phase and the waiting for a trial.
The length of the discovery phase depends on the aggressiveness of the lawyers and parties, as well as the complexity of the financial situation. Parties with very few financial or custody issues may not need to do extensive investigation, however parties with complex financial or custody issues may need more time to do the discovery.
Additionally, the relationship of the spouses can affect the speed with which the case moves through discovery, since a spouse operating in bad faith and hiding assets can slow down the proceedings. If the parties do not reach a settlement during discovery, waiting for trial can also promote a longer divorce. Trial calendars can be very full, and in some cases a trial date can be set as much as six months in advance.
Assuming the parties have not reached a settlement and the discovery process has ended, the trial phase begins. The trial is the formal presentation of the evidence made by the attorneys to the judge. Both sides have the opportunity to make their case, examine witnesses, and enter documents into evidence. Once both sides have argued their position to the court, the judge makes the final determination regarding the outstanding issues such as custody, support, and property division.
If you would like more information, tailored to the specifics of your case, seek out a California Divorce Attorney. The team of lawyers at Walzer Melcher can help you understand your unique situation.