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Divorce in Washington State: An Overview & How-To Guide

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

This overview briefly describes the process of getting a divorce in Washington State. For those who want more, it links to how-to explanations of every step in the process. In fact, several unaffiliated attorneys say they review these how-to explanations for additional guidance in their own family law practices.

Readers representing themselves might benefit from printing our outline on getting divorced. It is what our new divorce lawyers use to keep track of the process.

Table of Contents
I. How Long a Divorce Takes
II. The Five Stages of the Divorce Process
1) Petition/Response
2) Temporary Orders (Optional)
3) Discovery (Optional), Modifying Temporary Orders (Optional), and Enforcing Temporary Orders (Optional)
4) Mediation (& Presentation of Final Orders, If You Settle)
5) Trial
III. Post-Trial

If concerned about custody, stop reading this article and learn how to position yourself to win custody before anything else. 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 take the necessary steps to participate in the divorce despite being served.

The other way to get divorced quickly is if the parties swiftly reach agreement on all the terms. If you and your spouse just want reach agreement and enter an “uncontested divorce”, instead see our articles on negotiating pre-filing settlements and entering agreed orders.

II. The Five Stages of the Divorce Process.

1st Stage: Petition/Response.

The process begins by one party filing a divorce petition. The petition is the document that says the petitioner wants a divorce. Most petitions are basic documents putting 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. The response to the petition is a simple check-the-box document that only takes a brief sitting to complete. Failing to submit the response on time can lead to a default. Default, in turn, means the respondent cannot participate in the case.

Practice Tip 1.1: If You Have Children (Skip If Just Want an Overview)
Shortly after the time of petition, local rules might require parents to take a class, such as 4 Kids’ Sake. A local rule is one that applies to the county of your case. Speak with a family law facilitator in the county about whether you need to take a class and which one. Facilitators are available in the courthouse and charge $10 per session. 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.

2nd Stage: 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, a temporary parenting plan, temporary child support, appointing a Guardian ad Litem (see Practice Tip 2.1 below), 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.

Practice Tip 2.1: Regarding GALs (Skip If Just Want an Overview)
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.

3rd “Hazy Middle” Stage: Discovery (Optional), Modifying Temporary Orders (Optional), and Enforcing Temporary Orders (Optional).

This middle stage is nebulous. A party could take several actions, but they are 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 devices 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.

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.

During this stage a party might also elect to file a motion to enforce an order if the other party has failed to take required action(s).

Practice Tip 3.1: Regarding Discovery
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.
Practice Tip 3.1: Local Rules (Skip If Just Want an Overview)
It might or 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. Counties that automatically set trial dates will send 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.

Other counties require one of the parties to request a trial date. Do it in this stage if applicable. 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.

4th Stage: 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.

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

5th Stage: Trial.

If parties cannot reach agreement, they go to trial, where a judge decides the terms of the divorce. Only about 5% of cases make it this far. Most cases settle earlier in the case, often at mediation.

Trial can be extremely expensive, typically costing as much in attorney fees as the rest of the case combined. Preparations begin more than a month in advance, so do not wait until the last moment.

III. Post-Trial.

Our firm has separate articles on what you should know after your divorce.

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

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