One of the most common questions I get when speaking with potential clients is “How long will my divorce take?”
I wish I had a definitive time frame I could share with clients because the underlying question they are really asking is more like “When will this nightmare be over?” or “When can I finally move on to the next stage of my life?”
Unfortunately, like most questions posed to lawyers (divorce lawyers or otherwise), the answer is a big resounding “IT DEPENDS”. There are A LOT of variables that impact the timeline for a divorce case. Some are within the control of the former spouses, some are dependent on the attorneys involved, and some are just the nature of the court system.
To help with figuring out a realistic timeline, below is a rough outline of the steps for a divorce in Massachusetts for the most common type of initial divorce filing (a no-fault, but contested divorce under M.G.L. c. 208, § 1B).
1. Divorce Complaint Filed
As I said, most often the initial complaint alleges that the marriage is irretrievably broken (meaning no-fault under Section 1) and contested (1B) meaning there is at least one issue on which the spouses do not agree. This doesn't mean it can't be changed to an uncontested divorce (1A) later (as many are) if the spouses can come to an agreement on all issues (as many do!).
2. Court issues Summons (within 5 days, sometimes same day)
3. Service of Process on opposing party (must be done within 90 days)
Once the complaint and accompanying documents (more on that is a future post) are filed with the court, a summons will be issued, but the complaint has to be served on the other party to be made effective. There are different ways to accomplish this, but the least inflammatory way is to have the opposing party accept service and sign the summons in front of a notary.
4. Defendant files answer to the complaint (within 20 days)
An Answer and Counterclaim is common, but not required. If no answer is filed and the other party does not participate in the first hearing, the process for a default judgment can begin.
5. Temporary Orders (depends on number and complexity)
Temporary Orders could include a host of things, but the most common are Temporary Orders for Support, Child Custody, a Parenting Plan, and occupancy of the marital home.
6. Discovery (time depends on how complex and contentious)
This is where the drudgery begins in many cases. Both parties are required to complete a very detailed Financial Statement. There is a list of documents that have to be provided in every divorce pursuant to Rule 410 ("mandatory discovery"), but if you and your spouse own a business, own multiple properties or just have a large number of various types of other assets, this part of the divorce can take a LONG time.
7. Pretrial Conference
This is another attempt by the court to get the parties to come to an agreement without going to trial. Each party files a Pretrial Memorandum that lays out the case as it currently stands and identifies all areas where the parties are still in dispute, the position of each party on each issue, the evidence that each party would like to use if a trial were to be scheduled, including documents and witnesses, and an estimate for how long the trial would take.
Only a very small percentage of divorce cases actually go to trial (somewhere in the neighborhood of 7%).
9. Nisi Period (90/120 days)
This is the final stage of the divorce process, and is simply a court-mandated waiting period after the Court enters a final judgment. This automatically expires and the divorce becomes final (for real) after 90 days for a contested divorce, or 120 days for an uncontested divorce.
10. Divorce is Final!
Any and all of these steps can take longer. One thing to keep in mind is that every motion that needs to be decided by the Court also needs to be scheduled with all the parties, and all of the parties have to show up in court (or via Zoom). If the judge, an attorney, or one of the parties is sick, it may be a few weeks before the hearing can be rescheduled.
Bottom Line – if you are looking to conclude your divorce as quickly and inexpensively as possible, the best thing you can do is keep the number of things that need to be decided by the court to as few as possible, preferably zero.
You are better off working hard to come to an agreement with your spouse without leaving a decision to a judge who will have to decide how to divide something based solely on what they read in pleadings and hear as testimony.