One of the most common questions a divorcing spouse asks me is “how long will it take?” The answer is not completely open-ended, but it is accurate to say “it depends.” What the total time depends on, however, is what is really important to you. The complexity of your finances, child custody and visitation, a family business – these things and other conspire against a really quick resolution. However, the biggest wildcard is your spouse’s agreeability.
The quick answer to the time question is this: If everything goes well, and your spouse is amenable to a settlement, six months to one year is a fair estimate in most New Jersey counties. If you or your spouse are litigious, the process will take longer. If you and your spouse have very few things to dispute, or approach the process in a mature manner (even if you have lots of details to work out), you can come to a settlement even before officially filing for divorce. Then the entire process can take three or four months–possibly a few weeks less. Also, if you and your spouse head towards a settlement, either with or without voluntary mediation, much of what appears below–conferences, Early Settlement Program, discovery, experts–won’t be necessary.
The process normally begins when a divorce complaint is filed and the case is assigned to a judge. After the other party receives the complaint, he or she has 35 days to respond to the complaint with an answer, or an answer combined with a counterclaim.
The judge will most likely hold a Case Management Conference to create a schedule for the remainder of the case, including discovery, experts (e.g. psychologists, home appraisal, etc.), Early Settlement Program, other Case Management Conferences or settlement conferences, and ultimately the trial. The judge will issue an order with the schedule, which is always subject to modification. Alternatively, the attorneys and the divorcing couple can agree to a case schedule, which will save time and a court appearance (so it saves money).
Your divorce will be assigned to one of five case management “tracks” depending on complexity, child custody issues, and other factors. The track assigned to you will partially determine the length of the “discovery” period. The discovery period will average three or four months; less in some circumstances, more in complex circumstances.
The discovery period will start and both parties will exchange documents and interrogatories (questions and answers, in writing). The documents could include financial statements, employment documents, tax returns, home appraisals, expert reports, and many other types of documents. Although most divorces don’t need depositions, in which you will answer questions from your spouse’s attorney, under oath, in front of a court reporter, they are available if needed. Expert witnesses (psychologists, custody experts, accountants) will do their work during the discovery period, if they are necessary.
Towards the end or after the discovery period, you will attend the Early Settlement Program, which you can read more about here. If the ESP panel’s recommendations are not accepted, the court will usually schedule you and your spouse for mandatory economic mediation. If you settle at on the day of the ESP, you can be granted a divorce on that day.
If you negotiate and settle after the ESP, but prior to the scheduled mediation, you can schedule your divorce hearing without any more court-mandated proceedings. This raises an important point: you can settle at any time during the divorce process, which will end any court-mandated activity from that point forward.
After mandatory economic mediation, the court might schedule a series of case management conferences or “intensive settlement conferences.” You may be asked to return to a last-ditch ESP.
If all else fails, you will proceed to your trial date. The court will do almost anything to avoid a divorce trial. But you always have the right to a divorce trial, on all issues or a subset of issues, if you have a partial settlement and agree to a more limited trial.
Going to a divorce trial will always take longer and cost more than a settlement. Time and money are real issues, of course. However, the best justification for a settlement is that it will be yours, and not imposed on you by the court.
So your divorce could take three or four months (without many of the requirements described above), or a few years, or anywhere in between. The time is entirely dependent on how you and your spouse approach the process. You may not be able to influence your spouse as much as you would like–you’re getting divorced after all–but you can control yourself. The better your approach, the shorter the time. And negotiating and compromising does not mean that you are giving up everything, since all divorce settlements should be the result of negotiation and compromise.