In the United States, divorce is the legal process required to permanently dissolve a marriage. Each state has its own laws relating to divorce, including the grounds for divorce, required time frames and the process you must follow to contest a divorce. The length of time each stage of the divorce process takes depends on how complex the case is and how cooperative the parties are.
The Definition of Divorce
When a couple gets divorced, their marriage comes to an end and they are both single again, legally allowed to marry other people. In many states, divorce is termed a "dissolution of marriage." Before you can file for divorce, you must satisfy the eligibility requirements, which vary by state. For example, in New York, either you or your spouse must have been living in the state continuously for at least two years before starting the divorce case, or you or your spouse has been living in New York continuously for at least one year before the divorce case is started and you got married in New York and lived in the state as a married couple, or the grounds for your divorce happened in New York, or both you and your spouse are residents of the state on the day the divorce is started and the grounds for your divorce happened in New York.
Grounds for Divorce
You must also have a ground – a legally acceptable reason – for divorce. However, most states have abolished all fault grounds for divorce, so you can now file for a no-fault divorce in all states. Each state has its own interpretation of a no-fault divorce, which does not place blame on either party. For example, in New York, a no-fault divorce is defined as the irretrievable breakdown in the relationship for a period of at least six months.
In some states, you can also file for divorce on other, so-called fault grounds, such as cruel and inhuman treatment, abandonment or desertion, imprisonment, adultery and divorce after a legal separation agreement or judgment of separation. Each of these grounds has specific criteria. For example, to rely on the ground of adultery in New York, you must show that your spouse committed adultery during the marriage by providing evidence from a third party.
How Long Does It Take to File a Divorce Petition?
The divorce process begins when you or your spouse files a petition for dissolution of marriage with the circuit court in the county in which either party lives, or where you and your spouse last lived together. If you are the petitioner, you must state that the marriage is irretrievably broken or state a specific ground for divorce if you live in a state that still accepts fault grounds. On the petition, you must also ask the court to order a divorce, as well as anything else you want in relation to property or children of the relationship. Each county has its own form for divorce proceedings, which you can get from your local court clerk’s office. Depending on your state, the petition may be called a Complaint for Divorce, a Petition for Dissolution of Marriage or something similar.
After you have completed and signed the divorce petition, file it with the clerk's office. This simply means that you hand it to the clerk’s office or the circuit court in the county where you’re filing for divorce. You should receive a copy of your signed petition with a date stamp and notation, showing that it has been officially filed with the court. The entire process shouldn't take longer than a couple of hours, depending on how much information you need to provide on your petition and whether you require any assistance from the clerk.
How Long Does It Take to Be Served With Divorce Papers?
After you have filed your divorce petition with the court, your spouse must be served with a copy of the papers. Guidelines vary by state, but if your spouse agrees, you can do this by simply handing him or his lawyer the papers. Your spouse must then sign a form waiving service, have it notarized and return it to you. This may be the quickest way to serve your spouse with divorce papers, but in many cases, service by the sheriff's office, a neutral third party or by registered or certified mail is required. A waiver of service waives a person's right to be notified of any further court dates and means the case can be taken up by the court without him, so a spouse is likely to sign a waiver of service only in divorce proceedings where the parties are amicable and working out the terms of the divorce without a judge's involvement.
If divorce papers are served by the sheriff's office, the sheriff collects the papers from the clerk's office and delivers them to your spouse, then returns to the clerk's office and confirms in writing that your spouse was served, either personally or by leaving the papers at his place of residence. If your spouse is served by registered or certified mail, the return receipt showing the papers have been delivered is sufficient proof of service for the court.
In most cases, divorce papers are served within a few days of the date of filing. If your spouse cannot be found, the court can issue a warning order, which is published in a newspaper or other publication and constitutes service.
How Do I File a Response to Divorce Papers?
Every spouse served with divorce papers has the right to respond to the information set out in the petition. However, there are strict time limits to do this, which vary by state. For example, in Florida, you only have 20 days to file a response and in North Carolina, you have 30 days. The time limit should be specified in the summons or citation that accompanies your divorce petition.
When you respond to divorce papers, you have several options. You may file an appearance, which is generally a one-page form telling the court what parts of the petition you agree with and what parts you don't agree with. Alternatively, you may file an answer, which goes into more detail about the parts you object to. You may also file a counterclaim, which is basically your response to your spouse's claims. For example, you may choose this option if you object to your spouse's ground for divorce. If your spouse has accused you of adultery, but you believe she was the one who committed adultery during the marriage, you can ask the court to dismiss her ground and grant the divorce on your ground instead. You may also want to file a counterclaim if you don't agree with your spouse's requests in respect to children, finances or property, and you want to ask for your own relief.
The information you receive with the petition should set out the options available to you and what is required for each one. If it doesn't, contact the clerk's office for assistance. As well as filing your answer at the clerk's office, you should also send a copy to your spouse. If you don't respond to the divorce petition within the required time period, the divorce is likely to proceed without you. In this case, your spouse has a strong chance of getting what she has asked for, even if you don't agree with it.
How Long Is the Divorce Process?
The length of time it takes to finalize a divorce depends on many factors, including the number of assets that need to be divided between the couple, child custody issues and whether there is a prenuptial agreement in place. Also, don't forget about your state's residency requirements. If you do not meet these, you will have to wait until you do before starting the divorce process. And most courts will not issue a final divorce order until all issues relating to child custody and property have been resolved.
The first court hearing in a divorce case is scheduled when the petition is filed, and usually takes place 30 to 60 days later. At this initial hearing, the judge reviews the paperwork, determines what issues need to be resolved and decides what steps are needed to achieved the desired outcome. It's important to attend all hearings and to comply with all requirements and deadlines to keep the divorce process as brief as possible.
The timescale is also affected by the amount of time it takes the court in your jurisdiction to issue a final decree and whether your state requires a waiting period before the divorce can be granted. For example, in South Carolina, there is a mandatory three-month waiting period between the date the divorce petition is filed and the date that the court can issue the final divorce decree. On the other hand, in Ohio, there is no mandatory waiting period provided both parties agree to the terms, although the court can order a conciliation period of up to 90 days, for example, for the parties to take part in family counseling if children are involved.
The main factor in how long the divorce process takes is whether the divorce is contested or uncontested. For a quick divorce, cooperation between the spouses and a commitment to resolve legal issues together are crucial. With cooperation, a simple uncontested divorce may be finalized within a few months. However, without cooperation, it can take years to get a final order from the court in a complex, contested divorce case.
The Cost of a Typical Divorce
When you file for divorce, a filing fee is payable to the court. This varies by state, so ask the clerk’s office to confirm the current fees in your jurisdiction. In New York, an uncontested divorce where both parties agree to the divorce and also agree about what will happen in respect to children, finances and property after the divorce, costs at least $335, which does not include lawyer’s fees, notary fees, process server fees or other related expenses. In Franklin County, Ohio, the fee for filing an action for divorce is $200.
If the divorce is contested, where you or your spouse does not want to get a divorce or one party disagrees about the grounds for the divorce or what will happen with your children, finances or property after the divorce, the costs will be much higher.
In cases of financial hardship where you cannot afford to file for divorce, you can apply to the court to have the court filing fees waived. You may also be able to find a lawyer who will give you initial legal advice for free or at a reduced rate. If you hire a lawyer, the fees will depend on how complex the legal issues are in your case and how many court appearances are likely to be required. Your lawyer should give you an estimated breakdown of the costs at the outset. Depending on your location and how experienced your lawyer is, you can expect to pay anything in the range of $75 to $450 or more per hour for her time. Some lawyers are willing to charge a flat fee as opposed to an hourly rate, which can help to keep costs down.
- The Florida Bar: Consumer Pamphlet: Divorce in Florida
- NYCourts.gov: Residency and Grounds
- NYCourts.gov: Filing for an Uncontested Divorce
- Instructions for Florida Supreme Court Approved Family Law Form 12.903(b) Answer to Petition for Dissolution of Marriage
- North Carolina Judicial Branch: Pro Se Absolute Divorce Packet
- South Carolina Legislature: Code of Laws Section 20-3-10
- LAWriter Ohio Laws and Rules: Ohio Revised Code Chapter 3105: Divorce, Alimony, Annulment, Dissolution of Marriage
- U.S. News: How Much Does a Divorce Lawyer Cost?