Clients often ask me to explain the reason that contested divorce cases and contested custody actions take so long to resolve. While there are a myriad of reasons to explain the protracted duration of divorce and custody cases, the primary culprit is usually the contested nature of the case itself. While an agreement can usually be approved by the court within sixty days, disputed cases take much longer to reach a conclusion. Those reasons include the need to formally serve the other party with a copy of the lawsuit (called a complaint) and a summons, to which the other party has up to twenty eight (28) days to respond, which can often take more than six weeks to compete.

Next, at least one of the parties usually requests the court to issue temporary orders. That process requires an initial hearing, usually scheduled six to eight weeks after the filing of the complaint, at which the parties discuss the possible resolution of all disputed issues. If no agreement is reached, the assigned Magistrate will order the parties and their attorneys to submit sworn affidavits usually within two to three weeks following the hearing. If the case involves children, the court will usually also appoint a guardian ad litem (GAL) to represent the best interests of the children, and will often delay the submission of affidavits to allow the GAL an opportunity to conduct an investigation. After submission of the affidavits, the court usually issues temporary orders three to four weeks later. By that time, the case is already three months old, and usually older if a GAL is involved.

The parties then often elect to conduct discovery, which can come in the form of written questions to be answered by the other party, a request for the other party to produce documents (e.g. financial documents, photographs, correspondence, etc.), and the deposition of the parties (sworn testimony recorded by a stenographer) . This process can take three to six months to complete, depending of the complexity of the disputed issues. The parties may also need to hire expert witnesses to value assets (e.g. appraisers, accountants, etc.) or to provide expert testimony relating to the children (e.g. physicians, psychologists, etc.)

After all of these tasks are completed, including many others that I do not have the space to include in this article, the attorneys will need to prepare the case for trial, which will initially require scheduling time on the judge’s docket to actually try the case, which in turn will depend on the judge’s availability and the size of his/her docket. At any given time, most judges have hundreds of cases pending before them, many of which will have been pending longer than your case. The number of days scheduled by the court for trial depends on the nature and complexity of each case. The more complex the case, the longer it will take to complete.

On average, a case involving custody will take at least three days to complete, oftentimes requiring seven days or more. To prepare for the trial, which is subject to the same rules as the trials you see on television, the attorneys will need to identify and prepare witnesses, gather and organize physical evidence (e.g. financial documents, photographs) prepare balance sheets of the parties assets and liabilities, prepare child support worksheets, and a host of other tasks that are too numerous to list here. At the end of the presentation of evidence, the judge will usually take the matter under advisement and issue a decision several weeks later.

As you can see, contested actions require a significant investment of time, designed to both protect the parties and to ensure that the court is provided with all relevant evidence to allow it to issue a decision. Of course, should the parties ultimately reach an agreement during the case, no trial is necessary and the case can be scheduled for an uncontested hearing.