When dealing with any legal matter, be it a criminal charge, a family law case, or something else altogether, it’s normal to find yourself overwhelmed with questions about the legal process, potential outcomes, and different financial and emotional factors.
This is especially true with divorce cases, which are oftentimes emotionally charged and exceptionally complicated. There’s a whole of hosts of things to consider that can factor in to the litigation of the case, from property distribution and child custody, to mediation and discovery.
Here at JC Law, we see hundreds of divorce cases come into our firm every year, and one question we get asked by new clients more than any other is a simple (yet important) one: How long is this case going to take?
Divorce is a challenging process, and understanding the timeline for a case from A to Z can help individuals navigate their legal journey with greater clarity. Each state’s divorce process follows a specific timeline, governed by certain laws and procedures.
This blog will be the first in a three part series providing a comprehensive overview of the typical timeline for a divorce case in Maryland, Pennsylvania, and the District of Columbia from the initial filing to the final resolution. First, let’s start with Maryland.
PLEASE NOTE: While the following provides a general overview of a standard divorce case, there are exceptions to each stage based on the specific county in Maryland where the divorce is being filed. For timelines and deadlines for your specific county, please visit the Circuit Courts page on the mdcourts.gov to access your county’s Differentiated Case Management plan (or DCM).
1. Filing for Divorce (0-2 months):
- The divorce process in Maryland begins with one or both spouses filing a complaint for divorce in the circuit court of their respective county. Either party must meet the residency requirements, which generally entail living in the state for at least six months before filing.
- Once the complaint is filed, the other party (the defendant) is served with divorce papers, and they have a specific timeframe to respond to the party who filed (also known as the plaintiff). The deadline for an answer being filed usually sits between 30-60 days from service, depending on the specific county.
2. Scheduling Conference (2 months):
- Once a divorce case is filed and answered by the respective parties, a scheduling conference is set up. This conference will determine the specific timeline that the case will follow, depending on factors such as whether the divorce is uncontested or contested or whether a Pendente Lite hearing (more on them later) is needed for interim relief.
- The scheduling conference is incredibly important, as the case schedule serves as a logistical North Star for all involved, including both parties, any children, and the legal teams for both the plaintiff and defendant.
3. Interim Relief (3-5 months):
- In cases where immediate financial or custodial issues need resolution, a party may request interim relief by scheduled a Pendente Lite (or PL) hearing at their scheduling conference.
- The topics discussed at this hearing can include temporary child custody arrangements or spousal support, and any order put into place at a PL hearing is meant to allow all parties involved to go about their daily lives while the larger litigation runs its course.
- PL hearing are typically scheduled within 3-4 four months of a divorce being filed, though a common deadline for a PL hearing is 150 days, or 5 months, after filing.
4. Discovery (3-6 months):
- The discovery phase is a crucial part of the litigation process is any family law case (not just divorces), as it’s the point in time where both parties exchange relevant information and documents related to assets, liabilities, income, medical information, and a host of other factors.
- This documents and information gathered in discovery often represent the backbone of a legal team’s case strategy and, since it involves requesting information from various different entities (schools, banks, phone carriers, etc.) it can take months to compile all of the different necessary documents.
This phase helps ensure transparency, aids in the equitable division of marital property, and can have huge implications for custody in the event that children are involved in the divorce.
5. Settlement Conference (6-7 months):
- Many divorces in Maryland are resolved through mediation or settlement negotiations. This stage allows both parties to work together with a neutral third party to reach agreements on issues such as property division, alimony, and child custody.
- If an agreement is reached, it must be formally signed by both parties and presented to the court for approval at a settlement conference. If a settlement is executed correctly, then the settlement conference serves as an endpoint for a case, allowing both parties to avoid a full-blown trial.
However, even if both parties don’t wish to settle their case, or an agreement hasn’t been reached prior to a settlement conference, every contested divorce case still has a settlement conference scheduled at their scheduling conference, to give both parties the chance to reach a settlement prior to the aforementioned trial.
6. Trial Preparation (7-11 months):
- If mediation or negotiations fail, the case may proceed to trial. Attorneys for both parties engage in trial preparation, which includes gathering evidence, preparing witnesses, and formulating legal arguments.
7. Divorce Trial/Merits Hearing (9-11 months):
- In Maryland, contested divorce trials take place at what is known as a “merits hearing,” where a judge hears both party’s cases and makes decisions on issues such as property division, alimony, and child custody based on the arguments (or “merits”) of either party.
- This represents the final step in a divorce case if the parties cannot reach an agreement, and these hearings are usually where the gloves come all the way off, as the legal teams for both parties use every tool in their disposal, such as depositions, examinations, and other forms of evidence, to argue their clients’ case.
- After the trial, the judge issues a final decree of divorce, outlining the terms of the divorce settlement. This document legally ends the marriage.The divorce becomes final, and both parties are legally single individuals.
While there are many more factors that go into the timeline for a divorce case, this lays out a standard timeline for what you’d see with a typical divorce case in Maryland. Stay tuned for later this week when we discuss the timelines for divorce in Pennsylvania and the District of Columbia!
If you have further questions about divorce, then we’re here to help. Call (888) JCLAW-10 to speak one-on-one with an experienced member of our family law department in a FREE consultation, or visit our contact page to schedule one at your convenience.
Remember, at JC Law, we aren’t just your lawyer. We’re your legal ally.