Trying to answer the question “How long does a divorce take?” is much like trying to predict the weather in Chicago. Your answer depends on a multitude of factors that are almost completely out of your control. Consequently, whatever prediction you make will likely be wrong almost as often as it’s right.
Although no one wants to hear it, there is only ONE honest answer to the question “How long will my divorce take?” That answer is: “It depends.”
While that answer can be frustrating, it can also be oddly empowering. That’s because it naturally leads to the next question, which is:
What does the length of time it takes to get a divorce depend ON?
Before we can answer that question, however, we have to start by defining what counts as “time spent divorcing.”
How Long Does a Divorce Take? … It Depends on How You Measure Time
According to statistics, a “typical” divorce takes approximately 12 months. But how long a divorce really takes depends on what you count as “time spent divorcing.”
One way to measure the length of time a divorce takes is by using court time. Defined this way, a divorce starts when you file divorce papers in court and ends when the judge signs your divorce judgment. But using this definition can make some divorces seem unnaturally short.
For example, people who mediate their divorce or use the Collaborative Divorce process may spend months working out all the details of their divorce before they file anything in court. Their “time in the court process” might only be a few weeks. Yet they were working on their divorce for way longer than that.
On the flip side, measuring the length of time it takes from first time one spouse says “I want a divorce” until the judge issues a divorce decree could make some divorces seem unnaturally long. Couples often spend months (or years) after divorce is in the air trying to either repair their marriage or to ignore the possibility that they will divorce. Including that as part of their “divorce time” can make it look like their divorce took years longer than it actually did.
Defining Divorce Time
The problem is, there is no standard definition of what “counts” as time spent divorcing.
- If one spouse moves out and lives alone for months or years before anyone takes a step toward divorce, does that count?
- Does time spent trying to reconcile with your spouse count?
- What if you put your divorce on hold for a while for financial reasons. Does that time count?
The bottom line is that, because everyone defines the time it takes to divorce differently, answering the question “How long does a divorce take?” is difficult from the start.
Yet, no matter how you define “time spent divorcing” there are a few variables that will always affect how long getting a divorce takes.
Variable #1: The Divorce Process You Use
The divorce process that you use to end your marriage can dramatically affect the length of time it takes to get divorced.
The three most commonly used divorce processes are:
- Mediation; and
- Collaborative Divorce.
Litigated divorce cases take the longest time to resolve. Divorce cases that go to trial spend an average of 18 months or more winding their way through the court process. Many litigated divorces take years to resolve.
Mediated divorce cases are usually resolved more quickly.
Most mediated divorces can be settled in 4 – 10 mediation sessions. If mediation sessions are held once a month, that means a mediated divorce can theoretically be settled in less than 10 months. If the mediation sessions are held twice a month, that time can be cut in half (again, theoretically!).
However, before mediation can occur, a couple has to have gathered, organized, and exchanged their financial information first. They may need to get home appraisals, pension valuations, or business valuations done. They also have to spend time figuring out what they want and need in their divorce before they can start negotiating.
All of that work has to happen before the mediation can be completed.
After the mediation is completed, a couple needs time to get their legal paperwork prepared, filed, and entered in court. While adding all that time together may make it seem like mediation takes forever, in reality most mediated divorces take way less time than litigated divorces.
Collaborative Divorce is another divorce process that is conducted through out-of-court meetings. The timing of Collaborative Divorce cases is also best measured by the number of meetings it takes to settle a case.
On average, it takes between 4 – 10 meetings to settle a Collaborative Divorce Case. If meetings are held once a month, that means that the average Collaborative Divorce case should take between 4 – 10 months to get resolved. Like mediation, however, a couple also needs additional time after they have settled their divorce to formalize all the paperwork in court.
While your divorce process is one major factor that affects how long your divorce will take, it’s not the only factor that makes a difference.
3 More Variables That Affect the Length of Divorce
In addition to your choice of divorce process, three other factors affect the length of a divorce: complexity, conflict, and emotional processing.
As a general rule, the more issues there are in a divorce case, and the more complicated those issues are, the longer the case will take to resolve.
A couple that owns a business together, has complicated financial holdings, or has children with special needs will probably have to spend more time going through the divorce process than a couple with no assets and no children.
The single most important predictor of the length of time a divorce will take is the amount of conflict it involves. The more you fight, the longer your divorce will take.
How much conflict you experience in your divorce in turn depends on two things: 1) Who you married; and 2) How well you and your spouse process the emotions that always accompany divorce.
Divorce is a process, not an event. Just as it takes time to grieve a death, so, too does it take time to grieve the end of a marriage.
The problem is that the two people going through a divorce are rarely, if ever, at the same point in the grieving process when their divorce starts. This, more than anything else, is what makes it so difficult to predict how long a divorce will take.
Understanding the Emotional Processing That Happens in Divorce
In almost every divorce, one spouse has been thinking about divorce for much longer than the other. Because of that, as they go through the divorce process, both spouses are usually at very different emotional stages of divorce. The clash of those stages is what’s responsible for a lot of the conflict that happens in divorce.
For example, if you’ve already been seriously thinking about divorce for months or years, by the time you and your spouse have actually started the legal process, you’re ready to be done! For you, the marriage has been over for a long time. You have already grieved your loss and you are ready to move on.
Conversely, if you’re the person who WASN’T thinking about divorce (or was actively denying that divorce was a possibility!), you may have been blind-sided by your divorce. You haven’t even started to grieve the loss of your marriage. You haven’t thought about what life will be like alone, how you’re going to support yourself, or what it will mean to be divorced. When the divorce starts, you’re caught in an emotional hurricane.
The clash that happens when one spouse is ready to move on and the other wants to hang on is usually atomic.
The spouse who wants the divorce is ready to have been divorced yesterday. Meanwhile, the spouse who doesn’t want the divorce is desperately trying to hang on to what they think is left of their marriage.
One spouse is doing everything possible to move forward. The other is doing everything possible to go backwards.
So, what to do?
How to Make Your Divorce Go Faster
Making your divorce go faster starts with understanding what’s slowing it down.
Using The Wrong Divorce Process
If the problem is that you’ve chosen the wrong divorce process, it may be time to decide whether changing divorce processes is an option. Sometimes it is. Other times, it’s not.
(If you’re too far along in your divorce, changing your divorce process will actually slow your divorce down, rather than speed it up.)
If the problem is that your case is very complex, then you need to make a choice. You can choose to push things along faster, and risk making big mistakes. Or you can take a deep breath and allow your divorce professionals to spend the time they need to get your divorce done right.
(Also, if your case is complicated, you need to do your part to make sure that you provide all the documentation to your divorce lawyer that s/he needs. The more you drag your feet producing financial information, the longer you will drag out your own divorce.)
Too Much Conflict
If the problem is that you and your spouse are fighting tooth and nail over everything, then you need to take a step back and decide what matters most to you.
Fighting WILL make your divorce take longer. But it takes two to tango. Are you willing to stop fighting, even if it means that you let your spouse “win?” Are you willing to make concessions you weren’t willing to make before just to get your divorce DONE?
If so, then you may be able to speed things up. If not, then you, too, might just have to relax a little and let your divorce move forward more slowly than you’d like.
(NOTE: There are no “right” or “wrong” answers here! You’re not a better or worse person if you’d rather make concessions just to be done. The same is true if you insist on fighting for what you want to get in your divorce. Both of those are simply choices.
The point is to understand that they are choices. You can make those choices consciously, or you can let life [or your spouse, or your attorney] make them for you. Either way, they are choices.)
You and Your Spouse are in Different Emotional Places
Finally, if the reason your divorce is taking a long time is that you and your spouse are in different emotional places and have different mindsets you need to figure out whether you can do something so that you get on the same page. (… or at least, so that you get into the same book!)
What you have to do to accomplish that may be counterintuitive.
If you’re the one who started the divorce and your spouse is fighting you every step of the way, purposely taking things slower might actually speed your ultimate divorce up.
On the other hand, if getting a divorce was NOT your idea, you may need to consciously push yourself closer to accepting the fact that you ARE getting divorced. Get a therapist. Work on processing your emotions so that you’re not stuck in pain.
Of, course, doing that is going to take time. And, you can’t necessarily heal your hurt in a heartbeat. But, at the same time, you can do your best to deal with your emotions rather than fight your reality. In your situation, denial is not your friend.
How Long Does a Divorce Take?
Divorce always takes longer and costs more than you want. You can either accept that or fight it. But most of the time, you can’t do much to change it.
(At least, you can’t do much on your own. If your spouse is on board and you work together, you can probably get divorced much more quickly and affordably than either of you would have thought possible. But that takes work, maturity, and mutual commitment.)
The key to getting through your divorce without getting angry about how long it’s taking is to understand what draws a divorce out and get your expectations in line.
Some things you can control. Other things you can’t. True wisdom lies in knowing what you can control as well as what you can’t. True maturity lies in controlling what you can, and letting go of what you can’t.
So, that leads us back to the original question: How long does a divorce take? (Or, more specifically, how long will YOUR divorce take?)
After all is said and done, the answer still is: It depends.
But maybe that’s not such a bad answer after all.
This post was originally written in January, 2015 and updated in November, 2020.