It is helpful, when deciding to get a divorce, to know what to expect, as it is a complex process that will almost invariably result in frustrating delays and unanticipated events. The following general timeline can help you understand the progression of the general divorce process, though obviously there will be variations from state to state and from one couple to the next.

  • The divorce is started when one of the spouses gets a lawyer to write a petition/complaint, which is a legal document explaining the reason for the divorce and how he or she wishes to resolve the resulting legal, financial, and custody issues.

  • The petition/complaint is filed with the court.

  • The court or the lawyer ensures that the other spouse is served with the petition/complaint, along with a summons, requiring the other spouse to respond with their answer.

  • A time frame is given for the response (typically, three weeks). The response states if the spouse agrees or disagrees with the petition/complaint as well as how he or she wished to proceed with the divorce decision. Failure to respond results in the assumption that he or she agrees.

  • There is then an exchange of documents and information between the couple, concerning such issues as property and income. In examining this information, the couple and the court and determine how property should be divided, as well as how to deal with issues such as child support and alimony.

  • It is possible, at this point, for the couple to voluntarily decide to go through mediation or settlement, in order to resolve the issues at hand. Some states actually require that all couples seeking a divorce attempt this.

  • In the event that a settlement is reached, there is an informal hearing where it is presented to the judge, who will examine it and ask some general questions, in order to make sure that both parties understand the decision and its consequences.

  • If the settlement agreement is approved by the judge, the couple is given a decree of divorce, which indicates the agreement the couple has reached. If the agreement is not approved by the judge or is never reached by the couple, then the case goes to trial.

  • During the trial, attorneys from both sides present their arguments, and unresolved issues, such as child custody, alimony, child support, and property division are determined by the judge. When the judge reaches a decision, he or she grants the divorce.

  • At this time, either or both spouses can appeal the decision to a higher court, though it is rare for an appeals court to overturn the judge’s ruling. Settlements, in almost all cases, cannot be appealed if both parties agreed to the terms.

As far as the length of each of these steps, it is difficult to determine and can vary considerably. The whole process can last from a few months to several years. The more the couple can cooperate and compromise, the faster and smoother the whole process will be.