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So, How Long Does Divorce Take?

From negotiation to separation, here's how the process shakes out.

Even if you’re looking forward to the certitude of having your divorce finalized, the process is never fun, easy, or fast. According to relationship and marriage expert Dr. John Gottman, couples wait an average of six years of being unhappy before doing something about it. So by the time you decide to divorce, you’re likely into the better half of a decade with a discontented relationship. And that’s before you’ve even filed.

But how long does divorce take? Even after you’ve filed for a divorce, finalizing it can take time. The steps of processing and finalizing a divorce vary state by state, and it largely depends on how easily you and your soon-to-be-ex come to agreements. There are ways, however, to speed up the process. Here’s what to know about filing for divorce, the time it normally takes to finally be done, and some points to keep in mind about the process.

So, How Long Does Divorce Take?

According to a survey conducted by the legal resource and publisher Nolo, the average divorce that requires litigation takes about 11 months. This includes the time it takes both parties to complete all the legal paperwork to the judge’s final decision. If there is a larger trial involved — that is, if there are disputes over assets like property, or there is a very involved custody battles — that time increases to, on average, 18 months. The particulars depend on how amicable the split is and the specific laws of the state in which you live. For instance, many states have a mandatory waiting period — often called a “cooling off” period — that requires couples to wait a certain amount of time between the filing of petition for divorce and the time case itself. This time can range anywhere from 30 to 90 days.

What Determines Length?

Do you and your spouse have children? Do you agree on how child support, legal custody, physical custody, and property division will work? If not, and you’re entering divorce-land with contested issues and two lawyers who become zealous advocates for individual interests instead of collaborations, you could be in for a ride. This requires litigation and takes both time and money.

A faster, easier option for couples? Hire a mediator. “The first call for help shouldn’t be the divorce lawyer because they create enemies out of divorcees and end up getting their clients to fight about things that the mom and dad didn’t even care about to begin with,” says Molly Olson, co-founder of Leading Women for Shared Parenting and founder of the Center for Parental Responsibility. “Divorce lawyers create conflict because that turns into more billable hours for them — and more time wasted for you.”

According to Olson, parents can come to agreements with their mediator and file a pro-se motion to file a joint agreement and get it signed by a judge — no lawyers. Experts agree the mediation or collaborative divorce — two alternative options to the standard litigation — are not only faster and more cost-effective, but yield a happier relationship when the divorce is finalized.

Want to Move Things Faster? Get Your Finances in Order

Pro tip: don’t play dumb and try to hide money during divorce settlements. That’s an awful (and illegal) idea — and just opens you up to more than you probably bargained for. Couples who muddy the waters with undisclosed finances and alimony claims often end up spending more than anticipated in lawyer fees.

Olson says she recently worked with a couple who spent somewhere between $30,000 and $60,000 in lawyer fees while trying find out how much money the other had and it created an intense conflict. “They finally realized that could’ve bought two cars with the money they spent trying to get money from the other before coming to a compromise with a mediator and finding a less costly way more amicable, solution-oriented, and child-focused way that met the needs of their family and made sure that their children have the necessities to grow up healthy and happy,” Olson says.

Making a Divorce Official

It often takes a judge between six weeks and 12 months to sign the official divorce papers once you and your spouse come to agreements and file them. Courts across the country are plagued with the burden of having way too many family law cases to sort through in a timely fashion — and when you top that off with municipal judicial systems being understaffed and underfunded, you’ve got yourself a waiting game. And since that six weeks to 12 months that it will take your judge to sign your papers is largely out of your hands, what leads up to this is the crux of what can create a divorce that seems to last forever.