How Long Does a Contested Divorce Typically Take?

Katelyn Morgan

Divorce proceedings that are contentious (sometimes called “litigated”) can go on for a lot longer than those that aren’t. While every case is unique, the average time for a contentious divorce to be finalized is between one and three years.

In this post, we’ll look at the various elements that can lengthen or shorten the duration of a contentious divorce.

Filing the Petition

The petition for dissolution of marriage is filed with the court by one of the spouses (the petitioner) in a contentious divorce. This petition specifies the essentials of the marriage in question, asks for its dissolution, and suggests a division of property and obligations, as well as, if applicable, child custody, support, and visitation.

The petition for divorce is delivered to the other spouse (the respondent), who then has a set period of time (often 20-30 days) to answer.

Each claim stated in the petition is responded to in this response, with an indication of whether or not the respondent agrees. The divorce becomes contentious when the spouses disagree on key issues.

Attempting Alternative Dispute Resolution

Many states require the parties to try mediation or arbitration once it becomes apparent that their divorce may be contentious. The point is to try to work out the differences in a way that doesn’t need going to court.

In mediation, disputants and an impartial third party meet face to face in an effort to reach an agreement. In arbitration, a third party hears both sides and makes a final, legally binding ruling.

Before a case can move forward in court, alternative dispute resolution must first be attempted. The process can be shortened significantly if the parties are able to settle their differences through mediation.

But if they can’t come to an agreement, the case will go forward to trial. Using ADR can lengthen the time it takes to finalize a contentious divorce by at least a few months.

Related: What is a Contested Divorce?

The Discovery Process

Most disputed divorces take the longest during the discovery process. During discovery, each spouse has the right to ask the other for any relevant papers or information they may have about the contested issues. Examples of such demands could be:

  • Financial statements and tax returns to determine assets and incomes
  • Bank and credit card statements to trace funds and spending
  • Phone records, emails, and other communications
  • Business valuation reports if a business interest is involved
  • Appraisals for real estate or other property
  • Lists of personal property and proposals for division
  • Documentation of debts and liabilities
  • Records related to childcare expenses, medical costs, etc.

If one spouse makes a legitimate discovery request, the other must honor it. If they don’t, the other spouse can file motions to compel discovery on their behalf. Also, parties and witnesses are frequently deposed and asked to testify under oath.

Child custody evaluators, actuaries, accountants, appraisers, and business valuers are just some of the experts who would need to be consulted. Due to all of these factors, discovery in a typical contentious divorce might take anywhere from six months to a year. Over a year may pass if the estate is large or complicated.

Filing Motions

As the process of discovery continues, disagreements will occur that will need to be resolved by the court. There are several different types of motions that either spouse can file:

  • Motions pertaining to temporary child custody, visitation, and support
  • Motions regarding temporary spousal support or exclusive use of assets
  • Motions about discovery compliance or protective orders
  • Motions to compel drug testing or psychological evaluations
  • Motions to divide community property for ongoing expenses
  • Motions disputing the valuation or division of assets

The time frame expands since hearings are required for the court to rule on motions. Contested motions might add another six to nine months to the divorce process. Divorces with high levels of conflict might drag on for years due to motions, whereas simpler cases may involve less.

Settlement Negotiations

Divorcing spouses have the option of settling all or portion of the difficulties between them throughout the procedure. As the trial date draws near, parties frequently increase their efforts to reach a settlement.

They may be able to settle some of the problems and reduce the scope of the trial even if they can’t settle everything.

A disputed divorce can be resolved much more quickly if the parties are able to settle all or most of their differences. If the parties continue to be combative, however, and attempts at mediation fail, the trial will move forward as scheduled.

Depending on the complexity, lengthy settlement negotiations can add an additional two months or more.

Related: Find Best Divorce Attorney Near Me

Court Trial

A trial is the final step in a contentious divorce if no agreement can be reached. The judge hears arguments and evidence from both parties during the bench trial and then makes a final decision.

Depending on the complexity of the case, the trial may last many days or weeks. It takes more time to be ready for trial, including filing trial notes and gathering witnesses and evidence. Divorce proceedings may take an additional three to six months if a trial is required.

It could take many months to schedule a trial in a particularly complex case with a full court docket.

Post-Judgement Motions

Both parties have the right to submit post-judgment motions with the court after the judge has issued the final divorce decree. Typical appeals after a judgment are:

  • Motion for a new trial
  • Motion to reconsider judgement
  • Motion to modify the judgement
  • Motion to set aside judgement

The cycle of contentious litigation is therefore effectively revived. Additional months may be needed for post-trial motions and hearings, and an appeal could take even longer.

The Wildcards

Several additional factors can slow down contested divorce proceedings, including:

  • High conflict levels and frequent court intervention needed
  • Difficulty serving an evasive spouse
  • Delay tactics used by one spouse to prolong the case
  • Overwhelmed family courts with crowded dockets
  • One or both spouses frequently changing attorneys
  • Continuances requested by either party
  • Failure to comply with court orders or submit documents on time
  • Petitions and counter-petitions with complex legal issues
  • Interpreters needed for non-English speaking parties

A prolonged legal struggle might be the result of a number of factors. Disputes that go to court can take three years or more to resolve. Timelines tend to expand when budgets are tight.

The Cost of a Contested Divorce

Legal fees for a contentious divorce are far more than they would be in an uncontested divorce because of the extra time and effort required on both sides. Divorce lawyers might charge $200 to $500+ per hour.

Each party in a contentious divorce battle will likely spend between $15,000 and $30,000 on legal representation. Those with significant assets and/or involved legal actions may spend $100,000 or more.

Appraisals, expert witnesses, depositions, and court filing fees are all additional expenses that must be considered.

Tips for Streamlining the Process

If possible, aim to make the divorce process as efficient as possible by:

  • Keeping communications respectful and aiming for compromise
  • Being organized with financial documents from the outset
  • Making reasonable settlement offers earlier rather than later
  • Following court orders promptly and avoiding unnecessary motions
  • Seeking cost-effective legal representation and experts when needed
  • Prioritizing issues affecting children and agreements on custody

While every case is unique, these procedures have the ability to speed up the outcome of a contentious divorce to less than a year. However, if there is a lot of animosity and the divorce goes to trial, it might take three years or more.

The length and complexity of contested actions can be reasonably anticipated if the reasons for these delays are understood. A divorce of any complexity can be resolved in court with the help of an experienced attorney and plenty of time.

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Katelyn Morgan is an experienced divorce attorney. She understands family law and helps couples get divorced with minimal stress and dispute. Katelyn Morgan has won high-asset and difficult property division divorce cases. She fights hard for her clients and gets the greatest results. Katelyn Morgan speaks at divorce and family law events in addition to her professional business.