Timeline for divorce in Arizona
A question that is almost always one of the first that prospective clients ask me is: “How long will it take to get a divorce?” In many cases, not as long as you think and, in some others, longer than you might think. Here’s an overview of the typical timeline and time frame in Arizona.
What is the least amount of time it can take?Oftentimes folks are in a hurry to get their divorce started and finished. I can certainly understand that concern; they are uncomfortable, embarrassed or even angry with the fact that their marriage is dissolving, and they want the pain to be as short-lived as possible.
While I can try to minimize the time, there is nothing I can do to take it away entirely. But I do try to reduce the length of their matter to the greatest extent possible.
In Arizona, the minimum amount of time from start to finish is about three to four months. I can't give you an exact number of days, because there are a number of variables both within and outside the control of the spouses that can affect that time frame. I can tell you that Arizona divorces tend to take less time than a lot of other states, particularly separate-property rather than community-property states.
Here are the basic steps:(1) One of the spouses files for divorce (that is, he or she becomes the "Petitioner") by mailing or delivering (personally or by legal courier) to a clerk of court office in the county in which he or she resides (there are some exceptions to this, to be addressed separately) a petition and a number of other required related documents or forms, as well as payment (or application and court consent for waiver or deferral of certain fees due to poverty-level income) for the initial filing fee, which is presently $341 in Maricopa County (it varies by county and also increases slightly every year).
(2) That same spouse must "serve" the other spouse (called the "Respondent") with a copy of the documents that has been stamped by the clerk of court (called a "conformed" copy). This can be accomplished via certified mail (return-receipt requested), courier (signature-required) service, mailing, emailing or hand-delivering a set of copies with an Acceptance/Waiver of Service affidavit included that the other spouse will have to get his or her signature notarized on and return the original to you for filing with the court attached to a proof-of-service notice.
(3) Then, 20 days AFTER (not including) the date that the Respondent was legally served they must file a written, dated, signed on pleading paper "Response"/"Answer" to the petition if they object to anything contained therein (don't mistake this for objecting to the divorce; that is not a legal right in Arizona, as this is a no-fault state and if at least one spouse wants a divorce they will be given one).
(4) If the Respondent chooses not to file a Response, the Petitioner can request what is called a "default judgment," meaning he or she can be awarded everything asked for in the petition as long as it is reasonable. The first step of that process gives the Respondent another 10 days (called a "grace period") to file a Response without penalty or giving up any legal rights. If they still do not do so, then the Petitioner can ask for a Default Decree by submitting a proposed decree no sooner than 60 days AFTER the date of service.
(5) If both spouses come to an agreement about what they want their divorce to look like--preferably even before the petition is filed starting the court case--they can agree to let the Response deadline come and go, and then submit to the court a proposed Consent Decree no sooner than 60 days AFTER the date of service, which they will have both signed, as well as any related required and desired documentation, such as a Parenting Plan, Parent's Worksheet for Child Support Amount, Property Settlement Agreement, etc. This is also sometimes called an "uncontested divorce."
(6) No matter what kind of decree you submit to the court though--Default or Consent--the judge has up to 60 days to rule on it (that is, have his or her judicial assistant "sign" his or her name with a rubber stamp - literally!). However, generally these matters are the easiest and quickest to get off the desk so they usually are dispatched rather quickly, usually only one to two weeks at most.
Now are you totally overwhelmed? Don't be!So, basically, you're looking at about three to four months minimum to finalize your divorce, from start to finish. However, as I mentioned earlier in this legal guide, it can take longer and even much longer depending on who does what and when.
Some of the variables that can throw a wrench into the system or at least degrease the wheels:(1) Hiring attorneys. There's nothing wrong with both "parties" (also known as "litigants," these are the spouses or other people at odds in a family court case) consulting with different attorneys of their choosing to try to better understand their rights and responsibilities and how the law applies to their particular set of circumstances. There's even nothing wrong with one of the parties hiring an attorney to help shepherd amicable spouses through the process (as long as it is clear the attorney is not representing the legal interests of both parties or is not filing a Notice of Appearance with the court indicating they are counsel of record in the case; instead they are just helping behind the scenes with advice and review of documents or even legal drafting). Things start to get really sticky when both parties hire attorneys to be of record (represent them in court, respectively) and one or more of the attorneys is particularly confrontational or devious, and tries to bury the other in mounds of discovery requests (documentation that may be relevant to the case, or not if they're just being jerks), numerous demands and/or motions/petitions filled with inflammatory (and sometimes entirely untrue) negative allegations. This can add thousands of dollars to the legal fees each party must pay his or her attorney and, as a byproduct, months and even potentially years to the process.
(2) A recalcitrant spouse. A spouse who "puts his or her foot down" and refuses to even try to reach agreement and digs in with an unreasonable position that is not likely to result in settlement and that isn't even supported by the law (that is, the judge wouldn't rule the way they want anyway). A lot of times this can be an issue of minor importance or low dollar amount, but for whatever reason angry or upset emotions about the soon-to-be-ex-spouse run over the person's senses and they don't recover in time to avoid a train wreck of an outcome for themselves, which can even include them having to pay the other party's attorney's fees and legal costs as well as their own, just for taking an unreasonable position or holding up the orderly and timely disposition of the case.
(3) A judge or attorney(s) whose caseload is through the roof. Through no fault of either party, the court (or one or both of their attorneys) may have a scheduling conflict making it extremely difficult to get a trial date or even set up an informal settlement meeting or a Settlement Conference. This can result in a lot of delay as months go by with not much happening due to waiting for a court date. (And the judge still gets 60 days after that to rule!)
(4) Failure to pay the Respondent filing fee. There is a Respondent appearance fee of $270 at present in Maricopa County, which must be paid by the Respondent, whether or not he or she ever files a Response or otherwise appears and participates in the case in any way--or the Petitioner or anybody else for that matter must pay it--before the divorce can become final. A small thing perhaps, but easily overlooked.
One last thought: Keep the case moving or else!If the Petitioner does not legally serve the Respondent within 120 days (four months) or take other actions to keep the case going at all times, the court can involuntarily dismiss the case! Don't worry; notices would go out weeks or even months before any such thing could happen, and the court will give you a specific date as the deadline and it usually doesn't get around to actually dismissing a case until after that anyway, if at all. But if it does get dismissed, you would have to start all over from the beginning, and nobody wants that!
So, what now?The sooner you contact an attorney to consult with in an initial consultation, the sooner you can start the process of getting a "marital dissolution" (fancy term for "divorce") or any other court matter in Arizona, such as legal separation, annulment, or establishment of paternity, legal decision-making, parenting time and child support. No matter what kind of case it is, the general timeline and time frame should be about the same. So, no time like the present! Let's get started!
If the case becomes contestedIf Respondent does file a Response, this will automatically trigger the judge's office setting up at least an initial hearing (called an "RMC" or "Resolution Management Conference" in Maricopa County but it may be termed something else elsewhere) within a few weeks or months after it receives the Response. The parties will be required to attend this, with their attorneys if they have any. At this short (usually 15 minutes or less is allotted) hearing, the court will typically set up any follow-up services such as a Settlement Conference (a free two- to three-hour session with a court-appointed facilitator to try to mediate the dispute and get you to reach full agreement on everything and avoid trial), a Parenting Conference (if there are any allegations of unfitness issues of either or both parents, alcohol and/or drug abuse, child abuse/neglect, parental alienation, etc.) or any other type of court intervention.
What this means is that the parties don't agree on one or more issues required to be resolved in the divorce. If the parties don't agree to try private or court-sponsored mediation, or they go but they cannot reach agreement on all issues, then the court will set a trial date, which may take months to happen (even into the next calendar year) because the judges' dockets in family court are so heavy it's difficult to get up to a three-hour block of time in front of a judge. (Yes, that's all you get, people! Three hours to try your entire divorce or other family-law case!)