Generally, the court issues a summons within one or two days of a person filing. In the olden days before COVID, we used to be able to wait at the courthouse for the summons to be presented the same day, and that would enable us to serve the opposing party with a summons in complaint. During COVID, most of it has been done by mail, so we wait for the court to send the summons, which some courts are issuing as electronic documents. Several jurisdictions accept electronic filings. The party can just go and download it electronically once it’s presented. Nevertheless, that’s at least a two-day process or, depending on the mail, it could take a week.
Once you get the summons, the party who filed serves that summons on the opposing party using a sheriff, the mail, or a proper process server, and that starts the case. Then, the party who served will usually file an affidavit of service, which puts the court party on notice. The other party has 30 days or so to respond. That process can be very efficient and takes a week or two, depending on how available the other party is and what kind of service (i.e., a sheriff or a process server) is used. In some cases, however, it can take months if the other party refuses service or is not able to be located. People can be hard to find. Some people go out of state and haven’t seen their spouses in several months or even years. This delays the case from getting started.
After the affidavit of service is filed, the court usually schedules a scheduling hearing, and that usually can be done within three weeks or so of service. The scheduling hearing will then set the dates for the case, and this is where the circumstances will determine the timeline. If it’s an uncontested divorce, it will occur within weeks after that scheduling hearing. If there are other issues or if there are kids, then you are talking about a custody trial within three to four months, followed by a divorce property trial, which is bifurcated within a year or so after that custody trial. Those kinds of divorces are tracked, and it can take a year to get a result.
During the long time before or between trial dates, the court will usually build in other interventions. There might be pendente lite hearings (PL), which can start within a month or two of the scheduling hearing. A month or two after the PL hearing, we have to deal with another status conference, and then they would take the custody case to trial, which means a custody case could take five to six months just to get to trial. With COVID everything is a little backed up, but ideally, you would have your custody trial within three months or so.
Another thing they do in the courts is they have custody evaluations, during which a social worker will go into homes and evaluate the parties, the kids, and things of that nature. That process could take a couple of weeks. It’s usually included within the timeline of getting to that status conference before trial. So, that is all happening before you get to your custody trial.
Then, if there is property such as houses, cars, retirement accounts, etc. to decide, you can add four, five, or even six months to get to a property trial after the custody trial. You might have discovery and disputes every step of the way.
I’m jumbling many different components together, but in short, you’re usually looking at a year for divorce where there are kids and custody issues and property issues. You can work back from a year if any of those issues are minimal ones. Kids and property are the two biggest factors that dictate the timeline of these cases. If there are no kids, you go directly to the divorce trial about three to four months after the scheduling hearing. You could put up a flow chart of various different factors to see how each affects the timeline the court will follow.
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