What to Expect from The Court System – A divorce process timeline

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When you’ve come to the difficult decision that it’s time to end your marriage, you may find yourself wishing it could just be over as fast as possible. Whether the split is amicable or acrimonious, once you’ve accepted this fate, it’s common to feel like it can’t happen soon enough.

When it comes to the timeline for your divorce, there are three things that you should know from the outset:

  1. In California, due to a mandatory waiting period, it takes a minimum of six months for a divorce to become final.
  2. Nothing happens automatically at the six-month mark. If your agreement and paperwork are submitted sooner, your marriage is not legally over until six months have elapsed. Your divorce may take longer.
  3. The length of time your divorce will take depends on numerous factors—some of which will be in your control and some that will not.

Even half a year may seem like a long time, but there’s a lot to be done in that time, and it typically takes at least six months to complete all the steps.

Here are the basic steps of the divorce process and some tips for making it go as quickly as possible.

Divorce begins when one spouse files a Summons and Petition for Dissolution with the court. (Note that there are additional documents if you have minor children). That person becomes the petitioner. However, the six-month waiting period does not begin until the other spouse is served with the summons and petition. The day the petition is received is the Date of Service, and the served spouse becomes the respondent.

You cannot serve the papers yourself. Another adult (18+), the server, must deliver the documents directly to your spouse and sign a Proof of Service. You must file it with the court.

Once served, the respondent has 30 days to file a response regarding property division, child custody, support, etc. If they do not respond, the petitioner can file for a default judgment; the divorce can proceed without the respondent’s input as long as the petitioner has completed the financial disclosures.

Disclosures require sharing information about your finances, property, and debts. The petitioner has 60 days from the date the petition of dissolution was filed to complete preliminary disclosure. The respondent has 60 days from the date of service to complete their preliminary disclosure. Each party serves their disclosures on the other.

It is essential to be truthful and straightforward in disclosure documents. Being upfront and honest will save you time and money—it will make reaching an agreement easier and prevent fines and losses. (Later in the case, you will need to share this information again in a final declaration of disclosure unless both parties agree to waive final disclosure, confirming that you’ve kept each other up-to-date.)

If the respondent disputes issues—especially custody—there will usually be a hearing as soon as possible. The California court requires a custody mediation before the first hearing, which you must attend. In a contested divorce, there will usually be several hearings; you’ll appear before a judge to assess how the process is going. At any time, both parties can decide to negotiate a Marital Settlement Agreement (MSA). If you can cooperate and be fair, it’s often in your best interest to work together to sort through property division, custody/visitation, and spousal/child support. In general, you can save time and money and reduce stress by settling out of court.

If you and your spouse cannot agree, you must ask the court to decide the contested issues. Both parties will need time to conduct detailed discovery, which can sometimes take many months. It’s crucial to cooperate with the court and each other’s attorneys, complete all the steps, and answer formal requests for documents promptly to avoid delays. Typically, the court will set a trial date after the discovery process is complete. The date will depend on the judge’s calendar and court backlog and may be several months away.

Your divorce judgment will take effect on the day the judge signs the judgment for dissolution. However, your marriage is not officially over until the clerk has entered the judgment into court record—typically after the date of judgment. Your final decree will be stamped, and each party will receive a copy of the order, which will show the termination date—at least six months plus one day from the date of service. As of that day, you are legally single again.

Many variables affect how long your divorce will take. The experienced family law attorneys at SFLG can help smooth the process, minimize stress and conflict, move things along as quickly as possible, and help you get a favorable outcome.

By Debra Schoenberg

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