An Overview of the Divorce Process in Washington

In Washington State, a divorce takes a minimum of 90 days to complete. To actually finish that quickly, you need to have filed and served the initial papers, reached agreement on the terms of the divorce, and completed and signed the final orders. Since that is a lot to accomplish in a short period of time, most cases do take longer.

If you are not able to reach agreement, such as with the help of a Seattle divorce attorney, eventually the case will proceed to trial to let a judge decide the issues you are unable to agree on. The length of time it take to get to trial varies from county to county, but in King County is generally around 11 months. To be clear, however, very few divorce cases go to trial. The vast majority of the time a settlement is reached by agreement after negotiations.

At Seattle Divorce Services, our Seattle divorce attorneys manage your divorce from start to finish. We understand the process is overwhelming, and we strive to help you and your former spouse keep this difficult time as stress-free as possible.

Initiating the Divorce Proceedings in Washington State

There are several steps to starting the case.

  • One person (the Petitioner) needs to file a petition for divorce with the court.
  • The Petitioner also needs to proved to the court that the other spouse (the Respondent) has received a copy of the petition. Typically we use a professional process server.
  • The Respondent has a limited period of time to file a response to the petition. If they do not do this, the case can be completed without them.

Be aware that there are alternative ways of proceeding. For instance both parties can sign the initial petition, so that service and response may not be needed. However, if you are served with divorce papers, don’t be that person who fails to file a response, as then you may have no say in the divorce settlement!

Very often after the petition has been filed and served, one side or the other will file a motion for temporary orders. Temporary orders detail how the parties are going to live until they are able to complete the divorce with final orders. The temporary orders typically deal with issues such as who gets to live in the family home, temporary support, and temporary parenting arrangements.

In order to complete the case, the issues that need to be decided are similar to the temporary issues. There needs to be:

How is a Legal Separation Different from a Seattle Divorce?

A divorce is a legal termination of all aspects of your marriage. In a legal separation, you remain technically married but are no longer a couple or “community” going forward. People often choose to file for legal separation for religious reasons and sometimes to preserve things like health insurance benefits or perhaps create a more stable environment for their children. Generally in a legal separation the court will enter final orders similar to a divorce, including a parenting plan, support orders, and a division of your marital property. Our Seattle divorce lawyer can discuss these options in greater detail with you.

Where Can I File My Divorce?

To start with, the divorce statutes require that at least one of the parties be a resident of the State of Washington at the time of the initial filing. There is no time period to establish residency under Washington law for a divorce, so you do not have to have lived here for 6 months or a year like some other states require. However, residency does require living here with the intent to remain here; i.e. it is more than just a visit.

However, even if you live here, there is still the question of whether the state has jurisdiction over your spouse. Without that, the court might be able to grant a divorce, but not to enter orders that affect the other spouse, such as dividing property, ordering support, or entering a parenting plan. To have jurisdiction over the spouse, you either need their consent to jurisdiction, or for them to have resided in Washington at some point during the marriage (again, not just visited), or for the two of you to have conceived a child in the Washington. Also, there are some special rules for serving in the military in the state. If you can’t get jurisdiction over the spouse, you may need to file in the state the spouse is living in in order to enter meaningful orders.

There is also the issue of having jurisdiction as to children. As a general rule, the court may not have authority to enter orders related to children (such as a parenting plan) if the children have not lived in the state for at least 6 months.

Now comes venue. Assuming the state has jurisdiction, venue deals with which court in the state to file in. All divorce actions are handled through the Washington Superior Courts – the issue is which county. You can actually file in any county in Washington as long as the other party agrees. Without the other party’s agreement, venue is proper in a county either party resides in. For instance, if you live in King County and your spouse lives in Snohomish, you could file in either of those counties. But if you filed in Pierce, your spouse would be able to challenge the venue there and have the case moved to either King or Snohomish.

Managing the Potential Conflicts in a Divorce

There are a number of ways to go about resolving the different divorce issues. Some couples are able to sit down together and simply hash things out. We often call this the “kitchen table” method. More often the couple will need help.


The most traditional approach is for both parties to hire lawyers to litigate the case. Litigation treats the spouses as adversaries, fighting over the allocation of scarce resources. The typical basis for settlement is the question “what will the court do?”. Most experienced Seattle divorce attorneys will have a good idea what is likely to happen at trial in most cases, so a settlement is usually reached along those lines. Of course the answer to the question “what will the court do?” question is only a range, not a specific answer, so there are generally extended negotiations before a settlement is finally reached. At Seattle Divorce Services, our divorce lawyers do quite a bit of litigation with a focus on the negotiation process. We tend to see trial, and it’s high expenses, as the last resort when negotiations break down.


Often a mediator will be used to help the parties reach agreement. In a litigated case, the mediator usually comes in at the end, shortly before trial, in what is called a Settlement Conference. That mediator will typically rely heavily on giving a third party neutral opinion on what they believe the court will do to try and break any stalemate between what the two attorneys are saying they believe will happen at trial.

On the other hand, the two spouses may choose to work with a mediator directly, without attorneys present. This is often referred to as Early Mediation, as it takes place earlier in the case. This form of mediation tends to be more focused on helping the couple figure out what works for them rather than advising them on what a court would do. It is similar to the kitchen table approach, but with a third party present who has the skills and tools to help the couple move forward when they butt heads and get stuck. We have several attorneys who offer mediation services, but it is important they meet with both spouses from the start to avoid any appearance of being influenced by one side or the other.

Collaborative Divorce

Another approach, and one we particularly like to use in our office, is Collaborative Divorce. This operates somewhat like Early Mediation, but with more resources to help the couple feel confident they are making the best decisions possible. Both spouses also agree that they will not go to court or use the threat of going to court, which means that they need to work on listening to each other rather than bullying each other.

Initially, each spouse will hire a Seattle divorce attorney, and those attorneys will help them put together a team that may include a financial specialist, a divorce coach (communications specialist), and a parenting specialist. Over a series of meetings the couple will outline their financial situation, define goals for the future, develop and analyze different options for settlement, and finally refine those options down into a package that best meets their respective goals. We believe this is the best approach for a couple that wants to avoid fighting and hopes to continue to have some relationship after the divorce, especially as co-parents.

If you and your spouse have already agreed on who will keep the house, then the court will likely honor that agreement. If you are unable to agree, then the answer becomes more complicated. One of the court’s goals in a divorce proceeding is to arrive at the least disruptive solution. As a result, the spouse who has already moved out is less likely to retain possession of the house if the other spouse has remained in the home and wishes to keep it. That said, keeping the house isn’t always in your best interest, depending on the financial impacts your divorce may have. A Seattle divorce lawyer can provide invaluable guidance in deciding what to do about the marital home. 

Contact an Experienced Seattle Divorce Attorney to Decide Which Method of Resolution is Best for You

Just as every relationship is different, we know that each divorce is unique. At Seattle Divorce Services, we work hard to ensure that each couple receives customized care to resolve their conflict in the most peaceful way possible. We also make sure to preserve the best outcome for your child. Contact our firm today at 206-784-3049 to begin working with a Seattle divorce law firm that you can trust.