Contested Vs. Uncontested Divorces
An uncontested divorce is one in which you and your spouse are able to reach an agreement without the assistance of the court. Sometimes parties reach an agreement even before either spouse files for divorce. Often cases settle in the middle of the process, which shortens the length of time it takes to receive a final decree of divorce. A contested divorce case is one in which you and your spouse cannot reach an agreement on some or all of the issues. This type of case usually ends with a trial where a judge makes the final decisions. Contested cases take the longest to complete due to the complexity of the trial process.
Uncontested Divorce Timeline
Typically, in an uncontested divorce proceeding, one party files for divorce and serves the other party with the documents. That party then has 30 days to respond in writing or can waive the 30 days. After a waiver is received, the court typically schedules the uncontested final hearing within seven or eight weeks. For cases that settle in the middle of the divorce process, the parties simply inform the court that they have settled; the court will then schedule the uncontested hearing, which may be set in as little as two weeks. In uncontested cases, there is usually only one final hearing and no preliminary hearing.
Mandatory Waiting Periods
Typically, South Carolina courts will not schedule a final divorce hearing until at least three months have passed from the time the initial complaint for divorce was filed. An exception to this rule is when the parties in an uncontested case have lived separate and apart from one another for at least one year and have a signed settlement agreement. In that case, the court schedules an uncontested hearing within seven to eight weeks.
South Carolina family courts do not typically use the term "preliminary hearing" in divorce cases, but in some circumstances during a contested divorce, a temporary, or pendente lite, hearing is held. These hearings are usually held within a month or so after the filing of a complaint for divorce. They deal with issues that must be resolved immediately and cannot wait until the entire divorce is over, such as parenting time and child support. The decisions reached by the court during a temporary hearing can be altered when the case settles at a later date or after a trial at the end of the case. Temporary hearings are not meant to provide permanent relief to litigants.
Discovery and Mediation
After the temporary hearing, the court sets a discovery schedule. Discovery is a procedure that allows the parties to request documents from each other and may also include requiring the spouses to answer a series of questions. The discovery process can take anywhere from one to three months, depending on how complicated the issues are. After discovery, the court will sometimes order the parties to participate in a mediation process to try to reach an agreement. Mediation usually occurs over one or two sessions, but preparation for mediation can extend the divorce timeline another month or more.
As a last resort, any contested cases that do not settle will be scheduled for trial. At trial, the judge listens to testimony and reviews evidence to make a decision on each of the contested issues. Trials can be completed in as little as a day or two or last for months. The length of the trial will depend on how complicated your case is, how many witnesses you call and how much evidence you present. A judge cannot always clear the court calendar for weeks at a time to participate in your trial, so it may be spread over a series of weeks with gaps in between. Ultimately, a hotly-contested, complex divorce that must go to trial may take up to two years or more to complete.