One of the most frequent complaints I hear from family law litigants is the length of time it takes to finalize their divorce. Some of the fault for this complaint is institutional while a good deal of the time it takes to finalize a divorce is a result of each case’s unique issues. In this blog I want to discuss some of the institutional reason why divorce cases take time to resolve.
From an institutional perspective, there are certain time constraints that either cannot be avoided or are simply part of the process. For example, no divorce case in California can be finalized in less than 6 months. This is because of the Family Code Section 2339 which states in part:
“No judgment of dissolution is final for the purpose of terminating the marriage relationship of the parties until six months have expired from the date of service of a copy of summons and petition or the date of appearance of the respondent, whichever occurs first.”
Under no circumstance may a court or party waive or reduce the 6 month period, but a court can, for good cause, extend the period. The reason for this rule is California, and most states, have a compelling interest in supporting marriage. By providing this 6 month period (called the “cooling off” period) it allows parties who may have filed for divorce prematurely; allowing them time to work out any issues with their spouse.
Nothing in Family Code Section 2339 prevents the parties from reaching a full settlement of their case during this 6 month period. In fact, in uncontested divorces the case is often ready for processing and entry well before the 6 month period ends. In these cases, the Judgment is submitted to the court clerk before the end of the 6 month window, but cannot be processed until the 180th day after the summons was served.
The other major institutional reason why divorce cases take time to resolve is the court system itself. In recent years court budgets have been cut in order to divert funds to other publically funded areas. The California state court system, the largest in the world, serves 38 million people and has a budget of over $3.4 billion dollars. While that may seem like a lot of money – and it is—it only works out to about $83 per citizen of California.
The result of the budget cuts resulted in courtrooms closing, court staff being laid off, and significant delays in the processing of paperwork. Not only that, it means that cases that are not settled out of court must wait as long as 3-5 months from the day they filed their paperwork for a hearing date. This delay is only for 20-40 minute hearings to decide support or custody issues. If you want to have a full trial on your case (often lasting a full day or more) the wait can be as much as 6-9 months.
Finally, the nature of family law litigation takes time. In a personal injury case involving a car accident there are a limited number of facts that must be discovered because the issue at controversy happened over a very short period of time. In a divorce, there are years of evidence that may be relevant to your case. Moreover, there are emotional issues such as abuse, addiction, or financial distrust that impact a family law case. These issues truly are unique to family law.
A good family law attorney can explain the institutional reasons for why family law cases take so long and will be able to explore options to mitigate them. One simple way of avoiding these time constraints is to reach a reasonable out of court settlement with the other side. By doing so you avoid the need to appear in court or wait in line for a hearing.
Feel free to contact us if you are considering a divorce from your spouse, a legal separation, or have questions regarding child custody and visitation. Nancy J. Bickford is the only Certified Family Law Specialist (CFLS) in San Diego County who is also a licensed Certified Public Accountant (CPA) with a Master of Business Administration (MBA). Don’t settle for less when determining your rights. Call 858-793-8884 in Del Mar, Carmel Valley, North County or San Diego.