I work as a paralegal in a small firm in Florida. One of the most asked questions I hear is “How long will it take before I am divorced?”
There is no concrete answer to that question. It depends on your unique situation. Florida is a “no-fault” state, which means that in almost all situations, the Court will grant you a divorce, even if your spouse does not want a divorce. There are a few exceptions to that rule, but the Court will not generally keep you from getting a divorce forever. They will usually delay it for a certain amount of time. For these situations, you will need to consult an attorney.
There are three typical divorce situations: a) both parties agree from the start of proceedings; b) the parties are divorcing, but do not agree on the division of assets, visitation, custody and other issues; and c) one party files a petition for dissolution of marriage, and the other party files a counter petition, then both parties decide that it is more cost effective to work out their differences and sign a settlement agreement.
In all cases, the spouse (party) seeking the divorce will file a Petition for Dissolution of Marriage. A process server will serve the other spouse. The length of this process depends on the speed of the attorney, and whether or not your spouse is trying to avoid service. Most attorneys will have your case filed within two weeks from the date you pay your full retainer. Service of your spouse generally takes 24 – 48 hours once the petition is filed with the Court. If your spouse does not want to be “found,” this process could take weeks, or even months. An alternative is to have your attorney file a notice in a local newspaper, thereby effectively serving your spouse. The requirements for this type of service are strict, and you will be expected to sign an affidavit stating your efforts to find your spouse.
Once your spouse is served, he or she has 20 days to file an answer with the Court. Most times, an answer and a Counter Petition are filed at the same time, but if only an answer is filed, your spouse could reserve the right to file a counter petition. If a counter petition is filed, you will have 20 days to respond to the counter petition.
During this phase, you must provide discovery. There are timelines on providing discovery, and they depend on what type of discovery is served upon you or what you serve upon your spouse. In all divorce cases, it is mandatory to provide your financials and other documents regarding your assets and liabilities. You must also file a financial affidavit. This is the part of the process that could make your divorce take a long time to come to completion. The faster you provide your documents, the faster the process will be. If you have children, your child support guidelines will be drafted based on the information you provide about your income.
If your spouse knows you are not providing full disclosure of your income, he or she may file additional pleadings in an attempt to get this information, and may appear before the Court to request a court order ordering you to provide this information. You may be held in contempt of court if you do not provide this information pursuant to the court order.
In some counties in Florida, the Court requires mandatory mediation before you can go to a hearing or trial. In Hillsborough County, you must attempt to mediate before you can go to the Courts for any type of temporary or permanent relief. If mediation is an impasse, you or your attorney may schedule a hearing before the Court. Sometimes, you may mediate, and come to an agreement on some issues, but there are other issues that are still outstanding. If you tried to mediate the outstanding issues in good faith, you may take those issues before the Court.
If you come to a complete agreement during mediation, and the Court ratifies your agreement, the Petitioner will appear before the Court in an “uncontested final hearing” to prove up the case. The Respondent does not have to appear.
If you do not come to an agreement, or you come to only a partial agreement, and cannot come to an agreement even after mediation (with the help of your attorneys), you will be scheduled for a trial. Depending on the issues and the number of issues, your case could be scheduled for a short time (couple hours) or up to a few days.
Issues that can make a divorce become drawn out and ugly is fighting over assets and liabilities, custody, visitation, and alimony among other things. You also need to choose your attorney wisely – ask him or her about settlement options. It is not a wise decision to hire an attorney who only wants to litigate your case. An attorney who talks about settling your case has your best interests in mind, not how deep your pockets are. You must also be careful that the attorney you hire does have litigation experience in the event that your case does end up in court, rather than a settlement. He or she must be aggressive enough and know the law well enough to get you a fair part of your estate and custody or visitation rights. Interview at least four different attorneys before making your decision. You may have to pay a consult fee – but it is well worth it!
* disclaimer: The author is not an attorney, and no part of this article should be taken as legal advice. The author is not responsible for any actions taken for or against you.