MASSACHUSETTS DIVORCE: HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE?

by Marion Lee Wasserman

Question: How long does it take to get divorced in Massachusetts? Answer: It depends. Some couples decide to get divorced and then take years to complete the process. Other couples want to move things along as quickly as possible. Often, one spouse is in a hurry, while the other spouse wants to slow down the process. There is no single timeframe that fits every couple, and patience truly is a virtue in this process. The fairest and wisest settlement for both parties and their children may not be the one they would have reached straight out of the gate.

All the same, let us imagine a couple in agreement on pursuing the quickest possible Massachusetts divorce.

Uncontested Massachusetts Divorce (1A Divorce)

Our hypothetical couple could work with a mediator, or could use lawyer-to-lawyer negotiation, to voluntarily reach a written Separation Agreement to be filed with the Probate and Family Court as joint petitioners. In the least complicated, most cooperative situations, it would make sense to allow at least three months from the first meeting to the Agreement signing, given the practical realities of scheduling meetings, collecting information and reviewing Agreement drafts. Three months is an aggressive time-frame for this phase of the process, but it is feasible for the right couple. In general, the more complicated the financial situation and the more heated the conflict between the parties, the longer it will take to work out an Agreement. Also, if there are children, especially if there are minor children, even in the absence of significant parental dispute, time will be needed to work out child-related issues.

Parents of minor children are required by the Court to take a court-approved parent education program and will need to allow themselves time to fulfill this pre-hearing requirement.  Each party’s certificate of program completion will need to be submitted to the Court as part of the divorce filing.

Each party will also need to submit a completed Financial Statement on the applicable mandatory court form, either the Short Form or the Long Form. Completing the Financial Statement will be more time-consuming or less time-consuming, depending on the complexity of the party’s finances. The Financial Statement, signed by the party under the penalties of perjury, must be carefully prepared. Those parties who are working with a mediator are well-advised to obtain legal counsel to review the Financial Statement as well as the Agreement, notwithstanding the additional time this step will add to the overall process.

Once the parties’ Agreement, Financial Statements, Joint Petition for Divorce and other required paperwork are filed with the Court, the parties will receive a hearing date. There may be a lag of a few weeks between the filing date and hearing date. The lag may be longer at times, depending on the Court backlog. If the Separation Agreement is approved by the judge at the hearing, a Judgment of Divorce Nisi (temporary judgment of divorce) will be entered thirty days later. That Judgment will then become absolute (final) within ninety more days.

So, from filing to hearing, the process will most likely take a few weeks, and from hearing to final judgment, assuming the Agreement is approved at the hearing, the process will take four months. This means that the entire uncontested process, including the negotiation of the Agreement, is likely to take from seven to eight months, at a minimum. The last four months of the process are simply a waiting period. The uncontested, Joint Petition process, is governed by M.G.L. Chapter 208, Section 1A and is often referred to as a “1A divorce.”

Contested Massachusetts Divorce (1B Divorce)

If, instead of filing a Joint Petition, one of the parties files a Complaint for Divorce, thus commencing a contested, rather than an uncontested, divorce proceeding (a so-called “1B divorce” under M.G.L. Chapter 208, Section 1B), the parties must wait at least six months from the filing date in order to have a divorce hearing at which a Judgment of Divorce Nisi may be issued. That Judgment will then become absolute (final) within ninety more days. If the parties to a contested proceeding are fortunate enough to settle their case before six months have elapsed, they may submit a motion to the court asking for the matter to be converted to an uncontested, joint petition proceeding, so that the hearing date can be set without waiting out the six-month period. In reality, parties to a contested divorce proceeding often require more than six months prior to the hearing date, because during that time they are working to negotiate a voluntary settlement, often with various court-required steps along the way, as, for example, a status conference with the judge or a pre-trial conference; and, if no settlement is reached, the judge will set a trial date, which may require a wait of several more months, during which time the lawyers and parties will prepare for trial. In Massachusetts, the Probate and Family Court official time-standard for contested divorces is fourteen months (under Standing Order 1-06) — that is, the divorce process, from filing to entry of a judgment, should take no more than fourteen months. Nonetheless, depending on the court backlog and the parties’ particular needs, the process may take longer.

Copyright © 2017 Marion Lee Wasserman. All rights reserved.