Most people have heard the stories from their friends, coworkers, relatives, etc. of their seemingly simple divorce that just never seems to end. Most of us can imagine how complicated divorces involving millions of dollars in assets and income can take a long time to be resolved. But what about the average, middle class couple with a house, a retirement account (or two), a couple vehicles, a timeshare, two children and the family dog? How could that divorce possibly drag out for years?
It’s easier than most people think. If the other person doesn’t want to be divorced, you must wait two years to ask that the court actually start the process of appointing a divorce master to hear the case. At that point, you are really at the beginning of the court process. The two years simply opens the door for you to now ask the court to do something about your divorce case. In most Central Pennsylvania counties, the court appoints a divorce master to hear divorce cases. The divorce master is an attorney who basically acts as a judge in divorce cases and recommends to the court how cases should be resolved.
However, there are steps you need to take before the divorce master can actually be appointed. There are forms you must file with the court listing your assets, liabilities and giving information about your income and expenses. After both sides have filed this information with the court, a divorce master will actually be appointed. The process of having the necessary information filed with the court could take 30 to 60 days. After a divorce master is appointed, he or she will generally schedule a prehearing conference that could be 60 to 90 days into the future. As a result of the prehearing conference, there could be additional information to gather, valuations to be done or some other action to be taken before the divorce master will actually schedule a hearing. Depending on what needs to be completed to prepare the case for a hearing, it could take 3 to 6 months or more before the divorce master actually sets a date for a hearing.
Looking back to when you requested that the divorce master be appointed, you have easily taken nine months to a year to get to the point where a divorce master is scheduling a hearing. If the hearing is scheduled 60 to 90 days later, you then get your day in court. Afterwards you must wait for the hearing transcript and both attorneys will file briefs with the court summarizing what they believe the divorce master should do. The divorce master enters a report and recommendation, which either party can object to. If exceptions (objections) are filed, both attorneys need to prepare further briefs to be filed with the trial court and then attend argument to explain why their client’s position is right. Given the additional time required for scheduling with the court and getting the court’s decision back after that argument, you can easily be at the four-year mark.
This timeline assumes that you haven’t been distracted by other litigation such as support matters, custody matters or various petitions for special relief and other actions in the divorce case that would push the divorce case off-track and prolong the litigation. This timeline also does not consider the possibility of either party filing an appeal to the Superior Court if they are unhappy with what the trial court does. The timeline for a Superior Court appeal is realistically six months to a year of additional time.
Generally, a divorce decree will not be entered until the trial court has decided any exceptions. The common thread in this four year divorce scenario is litigation. If you are litigating a divorce case, you are working within the confines of the court system and most of the timing is out of your control. This lack of control over timing and decision-making is one major reason that I recommend my clients avoid litigation and use alternative dispute resolution methods to make the decisions themselves. I firmly believe that court action should be a last resort and I take no pleasure in participating in these unnecessarily prolonged divorce cases.
The best way to prevent this scenario from happening to you is to speak with your spouse up front about what process you’re going to use to make decisions about your divorce. If the two of you are able to proactively decide how you’re going to get divorced it will benefit your entire family.