Divorce Attorney's Picture

by Samuel K. Darling, Bellevue Divorce & Family Law Attorney

This overview describes and advises on the process of getting a divorce in Washington State. For those who want more, it links to detailed articles and functions as a comprehensive guide. In fact, several unaffiliated attorneys say they review these articles for additional guidance in their own family law practices.

The overview and the linked articles contain the same instruction we provide paying clients and apply ourselves. That makes it voluminous. Take your time. Hopefully that also makes it valuable to anyone contemplating or going through a divorce.

The article you are reading functions as the starting point to access these resources. We encourage you to share it with anyone who might appreciate how-to help or insight into what his or her lawyer is doing (or should be doing).

Readers representing themselves might benefit from reviewing these resources in conjunction with our firm’s outline on getting divorced. It summarizes, gives check-the-box reminders, and is what our new divorce lawyers use. Young lawyer readers might also like our firm’s article on the advice we give our new family law attorneys.

Table of Contents
1) How Long a Divorce Takes
2) Prefiling Negotiations
3) Petition/Response
4) Temporary Orders (Optional)
5) Discovery (Optional), Setting a Trial Date (Some Counties), & Modifying Temporary Orders (Optional)
6) Mediation (& Presentation of Final Orders, If You Settle)
7) Trial

The majority of this information applies to Washington State divorces and legal separations generally, but any local rules from your case’s county would govern. Local rules can be hard to understand. Please head the guide’s periodic recommendation to speaking briefly with someone familiar with a local rule or norm. It can be crucial. People familiar with local rules and norms might include local attorneys, LLLTs, and family law facilitators. Family law facilitators are the cheapest option at $10 per session. They only give basic procedural instruction without advice, but typically that should be enough for this purpose. LLLTs are the next option in terms of cost. They are family law’s equivalent to nurse practitioners and can give full legal advice.

If concerned about custody, read Win Custody: Positioning & Evidence before anything else. It explains the factors the court considers and what you can do to improve your odds of winning. The first spouse to understand and act upon this information often gets the child.

I. How Long a Divorce Takes.

A divorce in Washington takes at least 91 days. Washington has a 90-day cooling-off period preventing people from getting quick divorces during brief fits of anger.

Do not expect YOUR divorce to be over in 91 days. The average appears to be about one year according to statistics in King County and Snohomish County. If one year is average, some cases last longer. Litigation takes patience.

As far as our firm knows, there are only two ways to get divorced quickly. The first is by default. This is when the responding party does not participate in or contest the divorce.

The other way to get divorced quickly is if the parties swiftly reach agreement on all the terms, such as the parenting plan and child support, who gets what property and debts, any spousal maintenance, and who pays any attorney fees.

II. Prefiling Negotiations.

Speak with your spouse about settling if possible. It can save time, money, and especially turmoil. Many divorcees describe divorce litigation as being the most traumatic event in their lives. Avoid it if you can. If you reach terms, our firm has an example divorce settlement agreement you might benefit from using. We also have an article on entering agreed orders.

Parties rarely agree on all the necessary terms at the outset. But they usually reach agreement on all the issues eventually. Upwards of 90% of divorce and family law cases end in settlement, usually shortly before trial. Consider informing your spouse of this and of the average divorce cost in Washington. It might encourage him or her to try harder to settle without going to court.

Sometimes parties engage in collaborate divorce or early mediation before filing for divorce. Both are structured efforts to mediate and reach an early agreement on all the terms of the divorce. These options were popular 10 years ago but have fallen out of favor. They are expensive and arguably waste most parties’ best chance at settlement by engaging in mediation too early.

You might describe mediation as a silver bullet, your best defense against going to trial. Often you can only convince your spouse to mediate once, meaning you probably have one shot. It makes sense to use that single silver bullet when your target is close and chances are good. Most counties require parties to mediate anytime prior to trial, and informal statistics from an especially busy divorce mediator show settlement rates almost double when mediation occurs shortly before trial as opposed to early in the divorce process. The highest settlement rates – nearly 95% – occur during a window six to eight weeks prior to trial.

This does not mean collaborative divorce and early mediation are bad. They still have their place. They are an especially good idea for high-worth parties who can afford the expense and want to keep their financial information and accusations out of the public record.

As a practice tip, do not engage in collaborative law or early mediation unless you have a signed agreement to mediate again six to eight weeks prior to trial, just in case.

III. Petition/Response.

For those who end up in court, the process begins by one party filing a divorce petition. The petition is the document that says the petitioner wants a divorce and relates his or her proposed terms. Most petitions are basic documents that simply put the other side on notice of the case. The petition is filed with the court along with supporting documents and served upon the other spouse, called the respondent.

The respondent usually has 20 days to respond to the petition by submitting a Response to Petition for Divorce. Failing to respond on time can lead to a default. Default, in turn, means the respondent cannot participate in the case.

Shortly after the time of petition, local rules might require parents to take a class, such as 4 Kids’ Sake. Speak with a facilitator about whether you need to take a class and which one. Sign up as soon as the case begins but not before. You might not receive credit for taking the class if you do it too soon.

Make a copy of the certificate of attendance, and file it with the court clerk’s office for the county of your divorce. Make sure to file this within roughly two months of the petition. Otherwise the court might hold it against you at hearings or trial.

It is also important to follow the advice in the parenting class. The advice may be crucial to your children’s mental health, and the court sometimes punishes parents for saying certain things around the children.

IV. Temporary Orders (Optional).

Given that the average divorce takes about a year, parties often need or want temporary orders that stay in place until the process ends. These temporary orders can address countless topics. Typical ones include who gets to live in the home, who gets the kids when (temporary parenting plan), temporary child support, appointing a Guardian ad Litem, temporary spousal maintenance, requiring a spouse to find work, and temporary attorney fees. Either party can file a motion for temporary orders at any time, but the petitioner commonly does it at the beginning of the case. The first person to file the motion for temporary orders gains a procedural advantage over the party responding to the motion, so many petitioners take the first opportunity.

Normally the hearing on temporary orders takes place about two weeks after the requesting party filed his or her motion. This allows time for the other party to prepare a written response to the motion for temporary orders.

If the requesting party cannot wait two weeks for temporary orders, he or she can instead request emergency ex parte orders, otherwise called immediate restraining orders. As the name suggests, those go into effect immediately, but they are also rare. A full hearing on temporary orders follows approximately two weeks after entry of emergency orders.

Sometimes the hearing on temporary orders results in the court appointing a Guardian ad Litem, or GAL. A GAL investigates the parties’ parenting and makes custody-related recommendations to the court.

Assuming the court appoints a GAL in your case, you should write him or her a letter or email describing your parenting-related concerns. You should also provide the GAL copies of the documents filed with the court up to that point in the case (and any additional documents you file from that point forward).

Always tells the truth when dealing with a GAL. Clean your house and have your child(ren) play an educational activity rather than watch the TV before and during any GAL visits. It can also be a good idea to draft and rehearse talking points about your advantages as a parent.

V. Discovery (Optional), Setting a Trial Date (Some Counties), and Modifying Temporary Orders (Optional).

After getting temporary orders, one or both parties usually initiate discovery. Discovery is the process of obtaining information and documents relevant to the divorce. Washington divorce litigants have many discovery devises at their disposal, meaning ways of getting information. The most common is a thick packet of requests called interrogatories and requests for production. The recipient normally has 30 days to comply.

Propounding discovery might or might not be a good idea in your situation. If you have all the information you need, propounding discovery might increase the difficulty of your case without any significant benefit. Moreover, if you propound a set of interrogatories and requests for production on the other side, they often do the same to you. Responding to interrogatories and requests for production takes days of nonstop work.

Around the time of discovery, one of the parties usually requests a trial date. Do it sooner rather than later. Courts are busy and typically assign trial dates months after the request. The exact process of requesting a trial date varies from county to county, but local family law facilitators can assist.

It might not be necessary to request a trial date in your case. Some counties automatically assign trial for a date about a year after the petition. You will know if that is your situation, because the court sends a case scheduling order or similar notification at the beginning of the case. King County is the most notable example. King County issues case schedules with numerous deadlines so parties can more easily comply with the county’s myriad local court rules.

Around this time one the parties might also file a motion to modify the temporary orders if there has been a change in circumstances. A common change in circumstances takes place when the GAL issues his or her report with recommendations on the parenting plan. The court will usually adopt the GAL’s recommendations as a modified temporary parenting plan if a party files a motion for it.

If the other side is not following the current orders, you could file a motion to modify them or take action to enforce the orders.

VI. Mediation (& Presentation of Final Orders, If You Settle).

Parties usually mediate after discovery and before trial. In fact, most counties’ local court rules require divorcing parties to engage in some sort of alternative dispute resolution before trial, and mediation is the most popular option. It involves an unbiased person helping the parties reach agreement on all the terms of their case. Mediation at this stage results in settlement most of the time.

Practice tip: if you settle at mediation, make sure you sign a settlement agreement before leaving the room. No agreement is enforceable unless the parties sign, and parties often back out otherwise. Also consider signing a settlement agreement that incorporates the exact language of the final orders. Otherwise parties commonly quibble for a month or more about drafting disputes.

Assuming you settle, present your agreed final orders ex parte, the fastest means of wrapping up the case.

VII. Trial.

If parties cannot reach agreement, they go to trial, where a judge decides the terms of the divorce. Trial preparations begin more than a month in advance, so do not wait until the last moment.

That’s it! We hope this was helpful. Our firm believes in making quality legal information available for free on the internet. For more free articles, guides, and videos, visit our website and click the resources tab in the upper right corner.

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