You have decided to put the past behind you and move on with your life. You have already packed up your belongings and moved out of the house. Now all that is left is the paperwork. As you sit across the desk from the lawyer, you wonder, “How long will my divorce take?”
Divorce is a painful process. It necessarily involves a breakdown of a relationship that once meant a lot to both parties. It often involves stress, anxiety, and even fights as you and your former spouse sort out how one household will become two. This is why, for many people, one of the first questions in a divorce consultation is how long the process will take.
Michigan Divorce Law’s Mandatory Waiting Periods
Many years ago, in 1958, Michigan legislators decided to build mandatory waiting periods into the state’s divorce law. The theory was, by delaying the entry of a judgment by a few months, couples who really didn’t need to divorce would find a way to reconcile in the meantime. This was especially important, they believed, in cases involving children. Because of this, Michigan law contains two mandatory waiting periods:
- 60 days in cases with no children, or
- 6 months in cases with children.
If there is a compelling need to accelerate the process in a divorce with children, the court may waive the 6 month waiting period. But no divorce will ever be final less than 60 days after the filing of the Complaint. Realistically, only a very few divorce cases are dismissed within the waiting period because the parties have reconciled. It does happen, but usually, if the parties have come to the point of hiring lawyers, they already know the marriage is not going to work.
Accelerating the 6 Month Waiting Period
Over time, judges across the state have come to understand that the 6 month waiting period imposed by the 1958 statute can often cause more stress on the children of divorcing parents than it saves. Because of this, many judges will find a compelling need to accelerate the process if the parties have resolved the matter within the 6 months and the children would be best served by providing finality in the process. However, there are some judges who will require more. Some examples for grounds to accelerate the waiting period could include:
- To avoid ongoing risk of harm to the children under the current parenting time structure
- So the children can be enrolled in a particular school before the start of the school year
- To sell the marital home in a more beneficial market
- So a parent can adjust health insurance within an enrollment window
- To allow for certain tax exemptions or deductions
Be certain to speak with your family law attorney about your particular judge’s policy regarding accelerating the waiting period, so that you aren’t surprised when it comes time to enter the Judgment of Divorce.
Mandatory waiting periods and acceleration are most often come into play in uncontested divorce situations, including circumstances where the parties have been separated for some time before the legal proceedings begin. In these cases, it may not take long after the entry of the complaint for you and your ex to hammer out the details and sign a Consent Judgment of Divorce that everyone agrees to. But even if you all sign the judgment on day 5, you will still have to wait until day 60 for the judge to sign the order and make you a single person again.
what to expect in contested divorces
Not every divorce is amicable. Particularly when a separation happens suddenly, there can be a number of hotly contested issues to be negotiated or taken to court. Custody and property divisions can take months to sort out, as each side obtains discovery, prepares reports, and gets recommendations from experts such as the Friend of the Court or real estate appraisers. In these cases, those 60 day and 6 month waiting periods could go by in a flash. Instead of waiting for the judge to sign, you may find yourself rushing to fit everything in before trial.
The Michigan Supreme Court has issued guidelines to all judges that divorce trials should take place within one year of the filing of the complaint. In the course of that year, you may attend mediation, hearings, and other attempts to resolve your case. Issues of custody and child support may be referred to the Friend of the Court for investigation. You and your attorney will likely be on a first name basis as you work through all the details of your assets, liabilities, and priorities. But unless you and your former spouse are very close to resolving the issues, as the one year mark rolls around, your family lawyer will begin to prepare for trial.
In a hotly contested divorce, the trial may take as little as a day or as much as a week of court time. However, this does not mean you should schedule a block of vacation time. Most judges will need to break testimony up to fit it around their existing docket and other judicial responsibilities. That means the trial process itself could take as long as 2 months from the opening statements to the final conclusion. Even once your lawyer is finished presenting your case, you may still have to wait weeks for the judge to render a final opinion based on the testimony. Then it will be up to your lawyer and the opposing counsel to draft and enter a Judgment of Divorce that complies with its terms. All together, you could be looking as much as 18 months from the date of the Complaint to the entry of the Judgment.
What’s the Average Divorce Case Look Like?
Eighteen months may be the worst case scenario, but the reality is, over 90% of divorces settle prior to trial. Through mediation, arbitration, and informal negotiations, your lawyers are usually able to whittle down the issues and reach a resolution based on the law and reasonable expectations about what the court will do in the end. In most cases, this process takes somewhere around 4 to 8 months, depending on the complexity of the case and the number of issues to be decided. Once all the terms are set, your lawyers will draft a Consent Judgment of Divorce and the plaintiff (or both parties if they prefer) will attend court one last time to testify to the truth of the Complaint (this is called “putting the proofs on the record” or a “pro con hearing”). The judgment is signed either on the spot or within the next few days, resolving the case well before the one year mark.
No one wants their divorce to drag on into the second year. But the reality is divorce is a time consuming process. Unless you and your spouse have already separated all of your assets, you should expect to work with your lawyer for a while. That is why it is so important to choose a family lawyer you can trust. You should feel comfortable talking to him or her and be able to assume he or she will bring your strategy to the court room, and the negotiating table. A divorce isn’t a form. It is a process. Be sure you know who is taking you through it.
Lisa J. Schmidt is a family law attorney at Schmidt & Long, PLLC, in Ferndale, Michigan. She handles divorce and custody matters throughout Metro Detroit. If you are looking for a divorce, contact Schmidt & Long today to schedule a free consultation.