Not all states use magistrates to assist in the divorce process. Among those states that do, magistrates are often limited to deciding child support or post-divorce issues. Florida and Colorado restrict the roles of magistrates. However, in Maine, they can decide divorces in some jurisdictions, if both spouses consent. Courts that employ magistrates generally do so because their dockets are crowded with more family law cases than the district’s judges can handle on their own.
In most jurisdictions, magistrates are attorneys with considerable family law experience. Courts appoint a magistrate to take testimony from litigants and to establish the details of cases. In legal terms, these are “findings of fact” which the magistrate submits in written form to the judge, spouses and their attorneys, if they have any. If no one objects to the magistrate’s report, the judge signs it into a court order. Ultimately, it is the judge's signature that makes the order or decree binding.
Magistrates do not possess the authority to decide issues such as custody, property distribution or spousal support so they're rarely involved in contested divorce trials. If you’ve submitted your case to a magistrate, this usually means you and your spouse are not disputing the grounds for divorce and have agreed on how you’re going to settle the issues between you. You’ve come up with a custody arrangement and parenting plan on your own. You can submit the details of your agreement to the magistrate for approval, rather than go through a divorce trial or appear for a hearing before a judge. Some states, such as Ohio, require you to bring witnesses with you to the magistrate’s hearing, even if you and your spouse have reached an agreement. Your witnesses testify about your trustworthiness and confirm you’ve met the legal requirements of your no-fault grounds. The magistrate will create a written transcript of your testimony and submit his decision to grant your divorce to a judge for approval.
The wait between the magistrate’s decision and your final divorce decree depends on the time period your state allows for objections to his decision. When the magistrate submits his decision to the judge, you and your spouse have a limited time to review your copy and make sure everything in it is correct. In Ohio, for instance, you have two weeks to object so a judge won’t review and sign the decision into a decree until this time has passed. Maine gives you three weeks. Because you either have to object during this time or accept your final decree as-is, check with the court in your state to determine exactly how much time you have.
Depending on how busy your court’s docket and your judge’s caseload are, he may or may not sign your decree immediately after your time to object expires. At a minimum, your divorce will take as long as your objection period, normally two to three weeks. You should then wait a reasonable amount of time for the judge to sign the magistrate’s decision into a decree which is likely to add another week or two, at most.
Lawyer Vs. No Lawyer
Unless you or your spouse used an attorney, the court staff usually takes care of preparing your decree for the judge’s signature. However, when an attorney is involved, the court will often ask him to prepare the decree instead, based on the magistrate’s report. Depending on how busy your lawyer is and when he does this, the process can take a little more time. He must then mail the finished decree to the court for the judge’s signature. However, you should be divorced within five to six weeks.