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When I talk to non-family law attorneys in North Carolina, whether it be friends, colleagues, or even clients, one of the first questions I get from people is wondering why it takes so long to get divorced in North Carolina.

This is a good question, but it misses the point of what a divorce actually is.

The process of “getting divorced” will take as long as you need it to take for your situation. Let me explain.

A divorce, so far as it is a legal term, is when two people formally end their marriage. And although in North Carolina you must be separated for an entire year for this to happen, in many situations the couple has been “divorced” for months, or even years, prior to formalizing their divorce in the court system.

That’s because in my view, the marriage ends when one person decides they no longer want to be married to the other person. But practically speaking, this is only one of the stages in the process of “getting a divorce”. What are the other stages you are wondering? I’m glad you asked.

The 5 Stages of Divorce

In my view, there are 5 main stages that any couple goes through when a marriage is crumbling. The length of time that you can stay in any one of these stages could be as little as a few days, to months, to even years. Every situation is different and every case is unique. Let’s run through these stages one at a time.

  1. Ambivalence. This is where 80% of marriages currently fall. And yes, I’m talking about marriages that appear healthy to the outside world. Of this 80%, roughly 60% of them will end in divorce at some point. I talk more about relationship ambivalence in this blog post. But generally speaking, relationship ambivalence means that you could stay in your relationship, or you could leave, but you haven’t made a firm decision one way or the other. Unfortunately, many couples stay in this state of ambivalence for years, which further erodes and damages their relationship.
  2. Decision. At some point, your relationship will be too bad to continue to stay in and you or your spouse decides to leave. This is a major turning point in your relationship and is the first step towards divorce. Many couples have made decisions like this and then move into separate bedrooms. Again, this stage can last for years, especially if there are children involved or if the parties can’t afford to float two households on their current incomes.
  3. Separation. Sooner or later, the couples that have decided to end the marriage will physically separate. This stage typically happens in conjunction with the following stage, resolution of issues, and the order in which they occur is interchangeable. We work with many clients that do not want to separate until they have resolved all of the legal issues, while other clients can’t wait for resolution to occur so they just move out. During one of these two stages is when the lawyers typically get involved.
  4. Resolution of Issues. There are a number of issues that need to be worked out in most every divorce case. These include the division of property and debts, payment of spousal support, and if there are kids, child custody and child support. When most people ask “how long will this take”, they are really wondering, how long will it take to resolve all of these issues. The answer depends on how amicable you and your spouse are towards one another. The easier it is for you to work together, the sooner you will resolve these issues. If you are not on speaking terms, and both of you have lawyers filing motions and fighting in court, then it could take a long time to resolve the legal issues and will cost you a significant amount of money.
  5. Legal Divorce. In North Carolina, the legal divorce (also called an “Absolute Divorce”) is very much an afterthought. In many cases, the couple has long since resolved their legal issues with one another and have begun the process of moving on with their lives. They may have started to date other people, bought new houses, moved to new states, etc. Only one spouse must have been a resident of North Carolina to proceed with an absolute divorce. The act of filing for and receiving an absolute divorce in North Carolina can take as little as 2-3 months with the help of a lawyer, or slightly longer if you are handling it yourself.

So with regards to the question posed at the beginning of this blog post, “how long does it take to get a divorce”… the answer is “it depends”. It depends on how many issues you need to resolve. Long term marriages with significant assets, kids, disparities in income, etc. will take much longer to resolve than shorter-term marriages where no assets were acquired, there are no kids, and both spouses are working in similar jobs.