One of the small surprises awaiting some folks who are going through the divorce process is that it's not really a single process at all. There are usually several family law issues that have to be negotiated or litigated, and a divorce attorney will end up presenting you with distinct sets of papers for each of those separate issues.
A Simple Example
The classic case of this boundary in action is when a divorcing couple has to deal with child support, custody, and visitation issues. Even if you're working with the same attorney for all issues, they will be acting in separate capacities as either a divorce or a family law attorney when they represent you. They can all be bundled together as a single package of services, but they are still legally distinct issues.
A Less-Simple Example
Notably, an additional boundary between criminal and civil issues exists in family law. If there are allegations of abuse, for example, those may have to be pursued as separate criminal issues if you want justice. Some mention may be made during the family law phase, but the court generally will not humor allegations that aren't backed at least by police reports. The same applies to things like orders for protection from abuse.
Why It Matters
First, it protects everyone's rights. Many issues can come up during a divorce proceeding that, frankly, should not have an influence on adjacent family law concerns. If an aggrieved spouse mentions the other partner's infidelity, for example, that will rarely matter in terms of settling child custody questions.
Second, it provides focus. Family court proceedings get messy, and it's often best to break things up into their parts. Alimony can be dealt with in one set of proceedings, and child support can be handled at a later time.
Timing for the Issues
This depends largely on how contentious the divorce is. Parties that are proceeding in an amicable fashion can sit down, have their attorneys hash things out, and sign off on the documents in only a few sessions.
Once things are disputed and the courts get involved, it becomes more complicated. At that point, you will probably end up dealing with separate conferences for each of the issues in question. That means there will be a divorce conference and then a custody one, and a court officer will provide a referral to the judge. Continuing disputes may require hearings or even trials.
For more information, contact a family law attorney.