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How Long Will My Divorce Take?

Racing through a divorce is both unwise and impractical. Here's why.

Key points

  • Anxiety about how long a divorce will take causes pain, but trying to avoid that pain by rushing the divorce can backfire.
  • It's an important to take into account a spouse's emotional state when initiating a divorce and allow time to process if needed.
  • Divorces generally take longer for marriages that involve parenting and complex financial entanglements.

Perhaps you've made the decision to divorce.

Photo by yugdas manandhar from Pexels
Focusing on the time is less important than focusing on doing your divorce well.
Source: Photo by yugdas manandhar from Pexels

Phil (not his real name) contacted me regarding his decision to divorce. This is his story.

Our first meeting was on Zoom. While we all have adapted to working on Zoom during the pandemic, it isn’t the best way to meet people for the first time. It can feel less personal. But after a few minutes of getting acquainted, Phil got right to his point. He talked about why he wanted the divorce. He then asked, glancing at his watch, “So how long will this take?”

In my work with divorcing couples, one of the first questions I get is “How long will the divorce take?” which usually comes just after “How much will my divorce cost?” (The answer to the question about cost is always “it depends.”)

Why is “How long will the divorce take?” such a common and important question? Divorce is extremely painful, even if it’s your decision to divorce. The pain is like intentionally walking into a fire and understandably wanting to get out fast! However, while you’d try to get out of the flames as quickly as possible, racing through a divorce is both unwise and impractical.

I asked Phil what made him ask the question. He said, “I just want to get on with my life. I have waited a long time to make my decision, and now I just want it done.” I asked, “Does your wife know about your decision yet?” Phil answered, “No, and I’ll need some help in how to break the news.” We spent the next half hour discussing how to tell his wife that he wants a divorce.

Speaking to Your Spouse

“How do you think she’ll react?” I asked. Phil acknowledged that she would be upset, angry, and distraught. “Like most people,” I said, “when they are blindsided with the news that will turn their lives upside down.” I added, “You’ve been tunneling out of your marriage for quite some time, but she doesn’t know that. She may be completely unprepared to deal with your announcement. How do you think she will respond if you begin a legal process immediately?” Phil admitted that he’d already interviewed family law attorneys and was ready to retain one of them.

“Given your wife’s likely emotional state, how do you think that legal process will go?” I asked. Phil paused, considering. “She’ll make it hard. She’ll fight me on everything. It will be awful.”

How to Stop the Pain When You're Not Sure How

Many people indeed want to get through their divorce quickly to end the pain. Unfortunately, rushing to the process too soon often makes the pain worse. People in extreme pain can cause the divorce to take much longer. And the pain will be worsened by the delays.

Many states have a “waiting period” after the divorce petition is filed. (In California, the waiting period is six months. It may be different in your jurisdiction.) The reasoning is that if you file for divorce in the heat of the moment, a cooling-off period might allow you to reconcile. The soonest one can be divorced is at the end of this “waiting period” and my experience is that it often takes longer unless you have a very simple divorce: no children, no property or debts, and married just a short time.

I reminded Phil that when you are flooded with intense emotions, you can’t think clearly, take in information, or make good decisions. We often say that divorce is 95% emotional and only 5% legal. So it is important to address the emotions first. For this reason, I asked Phil if he would consider giving his wife some time to process the news, perhaps with the help of a therapist or divorce coach.

This way they could work through the legal process a little more easily.

Image by Mona Tootoonchinia from Pixabay
Taking the right amount of time for your divorce will likely save you money in the end.
Source: Image by Mona Tootoonchinia from Pixabay

What Takes so Long, Anyway?

The legal divorce process requires that you understand your unique circumstances, finances, and parenting if you have children. You need to gather a lot of information, know the law, understand your rights, and avoid later regrets about your decisions. You also need to know what decisions will work out for you and your family in the long run, even if those decisions are not what the law would provide.

In our next meeting, I suggested that Phil learn about the different divorce process options. I encouraged him to choose a divorce process that supported his best intentions for his family. If possible, choose a process such as mediation or Collaborative Divorce to stay out of court. Working in an “alternate dispute resolution” process such as these gives you control over your decisions and over the time it takes to complete the divorce.

If you decide to litigate, know that divorce courts are often backlogged, and you may wait months for court dates, and pay your attorneys while they wait outside in the courthouse corridor. While some families need the decision-maker, the judge, most don’t.

Yes, divorce does take some time. How long it takes depends on how complicated your finances are, and your children’s needs for stable parenting. It also depends on your ability to work with your spouse to come to agreements, negotiating in good faith. Arguing is expensive, and it is extremely expensive when your professionals’ meters are running.

Phil listened carefully to my counsel and agreed to meet again after thinking it over. We met a week later, and he was ready to start preparing himself for the difficult conversation with his wife. He understood the wisdom of giving her time to work through her emotions before moving toward a legal process. And he was clear that his priority was to make the divorce as amicable as possible, for his wife and children. He still didn’t know how long it would take, but he accepted that their divorce would take the time to be “done right.”

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