Family Law

Why Is My Divorce Case Taking So Long?

By Joseph Pandolfi, Retired Judge
There are several possible reasons why a divorce case drags on.

Contested Divorces Take Longer Than Uncontesed Divorces

If you and your spouse agree on all issues, you have an "uncontested" divorce, which shouldn't take very long to complete. Some states even offer a "fast track divorce"—also called a "simple divorce" or "simplified dissolution"—for couples with no children, limited assets, and a written agreement on all their issues. If a couple meets the requirements for a simple divorce, they could be divorced within a matter of weeks or months, depending on state and local laws.

On the other hand, your divorce will take much longer—and cost more—if you and your spouse disagree about divorce-related issues, such as:

If you and your spouse disagree on any of your divorce issues, your case will take longer to conclude. Each contested issue needs to be investigated through divorce discovery. If you and your spouse complete discovery and you still can't resolve your issues, you'll end up preparing for court hearings, and possibly even a divorce trial. All of this adds time to your overall divorce. The more you can work out with your spouse, the faster your case will proceed.

A Divorce Progresses in Steps

The divorce process is a series of events, which occur in a predetermined time frame. For example, once a spouse files the divorce petition (complaint), there's a period of about 30 days (depending on your court's rules) within which the other spouse can file a response.

After that, there's a period of divorce discovery, where you and your spouse exchange financial documentation and other pertinent information related to your case. This takes, on average, another 60-90 days, but it's not unusual for a court to extend that if more time is needed to gather all the necessary documents (such as older account statements the bank may have to retrieve).

Divorce courts today also place a premium on couples resolving their differences. To that end, it's typical for courts to schedule a settlement conference—often conducted by volunteer attorneys who regularly practice divorce law—after the discovery period ends. If that's unsuccessful, the court may also order mediation in an effort to resolve at least the financial issues.

There Are Random Factors that Prolong the Process

Despite the steps in a divorce, there's a certain fluidity to the process as well, because issues can crop up at any time, and a court may need to address these when they arise.

Motions and Hearings

A classic example is where spouses seek temporary support—for themselves, their children, or both—until the divorce concludes. The spouse requesting support will file a motion (written legal request) to have the court determine if support is warranted, and if so, how much. The other spouse then has a certain amount of time to file a written response to the support request. In turn, the filing spouse is usually given an opportunity to reply.

It can often take a month or more for a court to ultimately decide a motion. And bear in mind that motions don't normally involve the court taking testimony.

A motion for temporary custody or parenting time (visitation) may require a hearing in which the spouses, and sometimes psychologists or other expert witnesses, will take the stand. You'll see this particularly where there is a question about the child's safety. This can further prolong a divorce, as judges now have to fit the hearing into their already crowded schedules. Sometimes the hearing will be conducted piecemeal, with testimony being taken for an hour or so over a period of days or weeks.

The "Take Them to the Cleaners" Mentality

Another factor that causes a divorce to drag on is the combative attitude of a spouse or attorney. Bitterness is a typical by-product of a broken marriage, and it's not unusual for this emotion to find its way into the divorce.

However, the prevailing philosophy in family law today is that the end result of a divorce case should reflect fundamental fairness for both participants. A spouse who views divorce as a zero-sum game is almost invariably going to be disappointed in the outcome. And lawyers who adopt a "take no prisoners" approach to divorce are doing their clients a disservice.

The only practical effect of this kind of attitude is higher attorneys' fees, ratcheted up anxiety, and continuous delays attributable to the demands of the unreasonable spouse or the counter-productive tactics used by an overly aggressive lawyer.

Divorce Courts Are Busy

The sheer volume of divorces poses a major problem for most family courts. Fortunately, the vast majority of divorce cases settle before trial. But often, these settlements don't happen until shortly before a trial date, usually a year or so after the divorce petition was filed. Up to that point, the court has been busy dealing with the standard progression of events in the case.

Add to that the hearings that may be necessary in the course of the divorce, as well as the trials that take place when a case can't be resolved, and there simply isn't enough time to bring cases to conclusion as quickly as spouses—and the court system—would like. Obviously it would help if more divorce judges were added, but then you get into the economic quagmire that most state governments struggle with on a daily basis.

You can help facilitate a timely conclusion of your own divorce by doing everything within reason to try to amicably resolve your differences up front. It's a good idea to consult with an experienced divorce lawyer to help you achieve that goal.

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