In very simple cases, the parties may reach agreement in a short time. More typically, however, it takes about a year and, in many cases, it may take several years to reach the terms of dissolution, either by settlement or by judicial order. This is in part because of the need to find out information about income, expenses, assets, and debts, in part because of the many temporary issues that must be handled, but also because it is typical that one party is less emotionally ready than the other to divorce. Usually, one person has been thinking about separating for a long time and the other person needs time to catch up. The less-ready person may cause delays, consciously or unconsciously. Therefore, the process will go no faster than the time needed for the “slower” spouse to make decisions. This is true whether the matter is mediated or litigated, since there are many legitimate ways to drag out the process. Finally, it is important for both parties to take enough time to reach an agreement that neither will regret in the future. At the early stages of separation, people often do not think clearly, so it makes some sense to take it a bit slow until you each have an idea of what the future holds. Pushing a non-cooperative spouse too early in the process can often be highly unproductive and stress inducing.
In California, there is a mandatory waiting period of six months from the time that the responding party is served with (or acknowledges receipt of service of) the summons and petition (which is filed to initiate the legal divorce). That means a judgment terminating the status of the marriage cannot be entered before that time period, although the judgment including all of the other terms of the divorce may be filed before, and then, on the six-month anniversary of the date of service, the status will be terminated. Other than by filing the judgment, though, the termination of the status of marriage is not automatic. If no one files a judgment including all the terms of the divorce, nothing happens. Also, if you wait until the end of the calendar year to submit a judgment, your judgment may not necessarily be entered until the following year, because there are many technical rules in obtaining a judgment and they are sometimes sent back for correction two or three times. Furthermore, in December of each year, there is often a significant backup in the courthouse, where each judgment and the related documents are reviewed for technical errors before the court grants a divorce.
Fern Salka is a divorce attorney and Certified Family Law Specialist with a divorce law and mediation practice in Brentwood. She is the former chair of the Los Angeles County Bar Association Family Law Section and is listed by Los Angeles magazine as a SuperLawyer for 2004 and 2005. View her website and Divorce Magazine profile.