“How long?” is always a pressing question for clients.
The frustrating answer: it depends. One reason for the variation in duration: clients come to us from such different places in their breakup. Once I answered that question for a potential client who told me she was having an uncontested divorce. Then I realized she hadn’t told her husband they were getting divorced and they literally agreed on nothing. Even if they had agreed, the amount of time to move from a kitchen table understanding to fully executed agreement varies significantly. Once there’s a fully executed settlement agreement the answer is fairly simple. In theory: 31-40 days. In practice: 35-60 days. Rarely: 14-90 days.
But we see the most anxiety over timing in contested cases, especially in end-of-relationship cases (typically a divorce or legitimation). In the contested world, judges and counties play a big role in the variance. It’s a bit more predictable in Fulton Supeior than in other counties because of the Family Division framework, first implemented in Fulton Superior Court in 1988. This is one reason Annie and I are big fans of the Family Division. (Hint hint, Dekalb Superior!)
From the status conference schedule, “how long” in theory would be six months. Fulton Family Division Rules are structured to assign to one of four types to most conferences it schedules: 30-Day Status Conference, 60-Day Status Conference, 120-Day Status Conference. In practice I’ve never seen a Fulton case work like that. And I think that’s for the best. In theory, a case would have one of each of these conferences at the one month, two month and four month mark and then be scheduled for trial approximately six months after the case was initiated.
For attorneys, trials are a mixed bag. Exhausting, but also exhilarating and lucrative. For clients, trials are financially and emotionally exhausting. Thankfully, most contested cases settle along the road. Fulton status conferences are instigators for many settlements, often between the 30-Day and 60-Day mark. But cases that are higher conflict or have complicated facts or contentious attorneys can require more breathing room. An experienced Judicial Officer typically slows cases down beginning at the 60-Day Status Conference.
In practice, expect a Fulton County trial to occur 9-12 months after filing.
Cases get to trial in Fulton typically around the 9-12 month point, sometimes longer. That’s quite a bit faster than in most counties. I’ve summarized below my experience of how cases typically progress through the Fulton status conference from a timing perspective.
1st 30-Day Status Conference
Initial 30-Day Status Conference date will be set at the time of filing for 30-45 days after filing (depending on conference availability). 30-Day conference rescheduling is common due to issues with service or with availability of the responding party and his or her attorney, which can push the date out by one to three weeks. Typical total time since filing: 1.25 months. Potential total time since filing: up to 2 months.
2nd 30-Day Status Conference
Because of their rarity they don’t have an impact on typical case timing.
1st 60-Day Status Conference
Initial date will be set at the 30-Day Conference for a date 1-3 months out. The J.O. will typically suggest a date that’s 40 days later, but one or both parties may ask for more time due to either other schedule concerns (ex: work deadlines, holidays, vacations) or to accomplish a goal in the case (ex: take depositions, attend mediation, exchange settlement offers).Since both parties participated in the process of scheduling the date, a 60-Day conference is much more likely to be held on the initially scheduled date. However, a 60-Day might be reset to a few weeks later if either attorney gets scheduled for a conflicting hearing or trial. Typical total time since filing: 3 months. Potential total time since filing: up to 6 months.
2nd 60-Day Status Conference
If the court opts to schedule a second 60-Day conference, it will be scheduled at the time of the first 60-Day conference. Although this conference is not part of the overall structure set out in the Family Division, it’s quite common. Typically it’s added to allow more time for settlement offer exchanges or mediation, to allow time to resolve a discovery issue, or to give time for a GAL or custody evaluator to complete an investigation and reporting process. Typical total time since filing: 5 months. Potential total time since filing: up to 9 months.
1st 120-Day Status Conference
The 120-Day is typically much more serious. At this point you are truly staring down the barrel of having a trial. Many family division judges will personally hear their 120-Day conferences rather than having a J.O. handle it. If so, this is the first time the real judge is hearing your case pre-tried. J.O.’s often express opinions on cases but they typically do it with caveats of “the judge may have a different opinion” or other types of hedging. This is the first time parties and attorneys have to be prepared for the unpleasant possibility of finding out the ultimate decider in your case isn’t buying what you are selling. In instances where a judge does leave their 120-Day conferences with the J.O. it may be because they have an extremely close working relationship with that J.O. so it’s almost as if the Superior Court judge is personally giving you feedback. Other judges treat the 120-Day as an extra 60-Day and will have the J.O. schedule your real 120-Day under a different name and for a later date. Worst case scenario: we’ve had some judges leave their 120’s with a J.O. because they hate family law cases and are trying to survive their Family Division rotation by minimizing their exposure to family law cases. (Rotation = the worst aspect of the Family Division, but that’s for another post.) Typical total time since filing: 5-8 months. Potential total time since filing: up to 12 months.
2nd 120-Day Status Conference
Like the 2nd 30-Day these are rare, and so don’t affect timing in a typical case.
“Real” 120-Day Status Conference
Some of the judges who let J.O.’s conduct their 120-Day conferences have those J.O.’s schedule some of those cases for a judicial conference with the Superior Court judge. Although these typically don’t get labeled as a 120-Day on the system, I consider that special conference to be the real 120-Day. Typical time since filing: 6-9 months. Potential total time since filing: up to 12 months.
If a case is really going to trial, chances are high you’ll have a discovery issue to resolve between the 120 & trial. Often parties do not attend these. Often these can be conducted by telephone, and even when done in person typically only include the attorneys not the parties. These don’t have an easily defined impact on a typical case.
Trial Calendar begins
Typically at the 120-Day cases are put on a month long trial calendar. Some judges will literally have you on a one day call and you might be reached on any day of that trial calendar. Kinder judges recast their calendar by virtual or in person calendar calls, which will give you the actual trial date. The kindest position of all is to be specially set for trial at the 120-Day. Typical time since filing: 6-12 months. Potential time since filing: up to 18 months.
The final muddle after the 120 Day can include delayed depositions, GAL reports, custody evaluation reports, motions for continuance, motions to compel discovery, discovery conferences, motions to re-open discovery, subpoenas, the judge’s scheduling issues, judges rotating in and out of the family division, conflict letters from attorneys, and even on occasion a real or pretend medical emergency from one side or the other. But eventually, there will be a trial. Typical time since filing: 7-12 months. Potential time since filing: up to 18 months.