One of the most common questions clients have for me in discussing their divorce case is “how long will this process take?”. Unfortunately, this is one of the most complex answers in a contested case. If the parties have a total agreement, the process can be finished 31 days after filing the Acknowledgment of Service with the Court. But if there is no agreement, the process can take a great deal longer, with several steps along the way. Like many fellow Georgians, I have been long anticipating the return of football season, and I could not help but notice how the game can proceed in similar stages to a divorce case. Here is what I mean.
1. STRATEGY: Before the team suits up and takes the field, there is a great deal of preparation and strategy which goes into the case. This can be with issues from deciding venue and jurisdiction (and who could have home field advantage), to working on gathering supporting documents and building your game plan.
2. KICK-OFF: The litigation part of a case begins with kick-off, or when the petition is filed and served. Once the case is filed, you must serve the opposing party. Once the opposing party is served, they have 30 days to return the kick (a very slow run back).
3. DISCOVERY: Next, the parties jump into the discovery phase of the case. This is the first half of the game, or first half of your litigation process. You are learning more information about the other party, some of which you probably didn’t know, and exchanging documents and information, which you must learn how to adapt and respond to, as you prepare for the run for the end zone. The discovery process can last for up to six months, but my be extended or reduced by agreement of the parties or order of the Court.
4.FIRST SCORE Once some discovery is done, and often while discovery is still taking place, there may be a temporary hearing. This is the first time you will get a ruling from the Judge, which will give you some new rules and provisions to operate under. This hearing generally only happens once, but can happen at any point during the discovery phase, usually depending on the schedule of your assigned Judge, or the emergent circumstances of the parties.
5. MOTIONS: There are several motions which may be filed during your case, depending on the facts and needs of your case. There may be additional motions hearings, or they may be ruled on through the pleadings. These motions could affect the length of your case.
6. CHALLENGING THE RULING: If you think there was an error of law made during one of your motions hearings, or your temporary hearing, and that ruling will impact the final outcome, you may apply for an interlocutory appeal and have the higher courts in the video booth review the previous ruling. This will likely add several months of time to your case.
7. HALF-TIME: Usually, about hallfway through your case you will be set for mediation. Mediation is an opportunity to really work on settling your case before going into the final half of the game, with the ultimate show-down in the 4th quarter.
8. 4th QUARTER: The last stop is the final trial. This process may be a few months, or may be a few years from your kick-off date, depending on the needs of your case and the depth of information. The timing to get to this stage will be impacted by factors like your Judge’s calendar, their general pace which they set cases for trials (as some Courts will set cases more frequently than others), how close you are in negotiations, how cantankerous your soon-to-be ex is, and any outside investigations taking place, such as a guardian ad litem or financial analyst.
As a difference from sports, you case can end at any time if you and your soon-to-be ex are able to reach a livable agreement, as the agreement will serve as the final score and help you reach the end zone. You want to think about the impact your case will have by turning if over to the referees and go so far as a final trial. In coming to an agreement, you have some control over the outcome of your case. When turning it over to the Judge to decide, you must live under the Judge’s (or referee’s) ruling. No matter how clear you feel the evidence is in your favor, if the Judge does not side with you, you have relinquished your control to that judge.
So, in short, every case is different and it is therefore hard to predict exactly how long your particular litigation will take. Some events can change the order that the stages appear in your particular case, and not every case will need to take each step. When building your game plan and planning for the length of your case, discuss with your attorney which of these steps seem likely in your case, and the benefits and drawbacks of each one. While it may be frustrating to receive an open ended answer, it is because your case needs to be crafted to your specific needs, which moves you towards victory.