The divorce process in Washington State is legally simple but that does not mean that an actual divorce is necessarily simple or easy. From the legal standpoint, the requirements that have to be fulfilled to get a judge to sign the final "decree of dissolution" can be completed 90 days after the non-filing party ("respondent") is served with the petition. The actual process can take anywhere from that 90 day minimum to well over a year. The pace of a divorce will depend on several factors: the willingness of the parties to try to reach agreement, the competence, attitude and motivation of the attorney or attorneys, and where the case is filed. Procedural rules vary from county to county and the scheduling of events in a case may involve lengthy delays in the larger counties. While it is legally possible to file for a Washington State divorce in any county within the state, no matter where the parties reside in Washington, filing in the wrong county can make the divorce take longer. A divorce should be filed in the county where the parties live, where their home is or was before separating or where the children go to school. If those concerns are met, other things being equal, filing in Kitsap County means that the process will be simpler and probably quicker than in other larger counties.
A typical Kitsap County divorce case will consist of three or four stages. The first stage is the filing with the county clerk of the “petition for dissolution," the document that asks for a divorce and may state the specific terms that the petitioner (the filing party) is requesting. Within 20 days after the respondent is served they are required to file a response to the petition. The first court hearing in the divorce usually takes place at about this time: the hearing on temporary orders. The temporary orders establish the rules for the time being that will determine things like which party stays in the family home, where the children will live, child support, who pays which bills, and who gets the use of personal property such as automobiles, etc. These are temporary court orders: at this time the court does not make any determination of the final terms of the divorce.
The next stage of the divorce is the “discovery" stage, that is, the exchange of information and documentation about relevant facts about the couple such as their age, health, education and earning capacity, everything the couple owns, everything they owe and any information that is important in determining the final situation for the children. Discovery can be done voluntarily but there often is also a formal process where specific questions are asked and items requested. If this is done in written form the requests are called “interrogatories." If this process is done in a formal interview it is called a “deposition."
The third stage in the process includes the settlement conference, which is required in all divorces in Kitsap County. The settlement conference is a not a formal court hearing but a meeting with the parties, their attorneys and a judge, the purpose of which is to encourage the parties to reach agreement on the disputed issues in their case. Because it is not a court hearing the judge does not have the authority to order the parties to settle the case. Also, this judge will not handle any other aspect of the case so the parties can be confident that any future judge will not be prejudiced by anything that is said or offered at the settlement conference. Court rules also prohibit either party from using anything said at this conference against the other party at a later time. If the parties do settle, the divorce will not be final until the attorneys put that agreement into writing in the form of final documents to be signed by a judge, usually within a couple of weeks. Given the length of time and the cost of the process up to this stage, with the prospect of more time, money and emotional cost to be expended, most cases settle at or soon after the settlement conference so they do not go on to the next stage: the trial.
If the parties cannot settle the case, a trial will be scheduled, usually at least two months after the settlement conference. The trial is a formal process where each side submits evidence to a judge in document form and in the form of testimony of the parties, or sometimes experts. Most divorce trials are completed in one or two days of court, but they can go longer depending on the complexity of the issues. After all the evidence is presented, the judge will make a ruling settling all the disputes and the parties are legally bound by that ruling. As in the case of the settlement conference, the divorce will not be final until the ruling is put into written form and signed by the judge.