When people decide to get a divorce, they usually 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 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.
1. Starting the Divorce Legal Process
To start off the divorce, one of the spouses gets a lawyer, who writes up a 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.
2. Filing and Serving the Complaint
The lawyer files the petition or complaint with the court. 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.
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.
5. Entering into Mediation or Settlement
Sometimes, the couple can voluntarily resolve all their issues through mediation or settlement. Some states require that divorcing couples go through this process.
If a settlement is reached, the settlement agreement is shown to a judge at an informal 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, he or she gives the couple a divorce decree that shows what they agreed to. If he or she does not approve it, or if the couple does not reach an agreement, the case will go to trial.
7. Proceeding to a Divorce Trial
At trial, attorneys present evidence and arguments for each side, and the judge decides the 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.
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, 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.
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 financial security, often spotting issues before they become real problems. 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.