Divorces can be deeply personal, and everyone has their own unique experience with the divorce process. Sometimes ending a marriage can be a simple matter, but other divorces may involve complex issues such as child custody or division of property. Whether you are considering divorce or annulment, or perhaps a legal separation, understanding the process in California is helpful before you take the next step.
If you determine divorce, or ending a domestic partnership, is the right choice for you and your spouse, California law has a specific process, filing requirements, and fees for the process. Divorces can be tricky to navigate and for some highly emotional, so gathering as much information about how to file the divorce and getting support and help by retaining a knowledgeable divorce attorney is essential to make this process as smooth as possible.
Like other states, California has legal residency requirements that must be met before you file for divorce. In California, it is required that either you or your spouse has resided within the state for a minimum of six months. You or your spouse need to reside in the specific county you wish to file for divorce for a minimum of three months prior to officially filing.
California allows for no-fault divorces, which means you are not required to show your spouse did something wrong or was at fault in order to get divorced. One spouse can choose to pursue a divorce and the court only requires a demonstration that the marriage has broken down, which is usually referred to as “irreconcilable differences.”
Unlike some other states, California does not require a specific period of time you and your spouse must be separated before filing for divorce. However, California law requires a six-month waiting period from the time you file before a court may grant your divorce.
If you choose to go it alone, without a divorce attorney, beginning your divorce process starts with a number of forms required by law to start the proceedings. Many of these forms can be found through self-help centers provided through your local or state court. The court clerks that staff the self-help centers can direct you to the forms and many may be found online. However, the court clerks cannot give you legal advice, though you may be able to get help through legal clinics run in your area. Some of the initial forms commonly required include:
Other forms that may be required include financial disclosures, custody and visitation requests, child support requests, or fee waivers (if you wish to file without paying a fee due to your financial circumstances). In some instances, you may need to file additional forms if you wish to receive a temporary court order to address issues such as financial support, including child support or spousal support (also known as alimony), and Orders of Protection in cases of domestic violence.
You may choose to begin this process by hiring an attorney to ensure your paperwork is correct, but you can fill out your forms on your own and hire an attorney later to review them before moving forward. If you do think you are going to hire an attorney, they will be able to prepare, serve and file this paperwork on your behalf so consult with them before taking any action on your own.
The next step is to serve your spouse with copies of the divorce paperwork to inform them you are beginning a divorce proceeding. California law gives you two options to serve your spouse:
Once your spouse has been served with the divorce forms, they have thirty days to serve and file a response. Your spouse may decide to file a response stating they disagree with your requests or file a response but work with you to come up with a written agreement on the terms the two of you have decided on. Sometimes, a spouse may decide to default – do nothing after being served -which means you are generally free to continue with the divorce proceeding without them.
After the you serve the initial divorce forms, California law requires you and your spouse to complete and serve each other with financial disclosure forms. This document includes the property, financial or physical assets, that you and your spouse own. The disclosure also includes debts that you owe individually or together. These forms must be completed within sixty days from the date you file your initial petition for divorce.
Just like serving the initial divorce forms, you must serve this form on your spouse either by personal service or service by mail. You also must file these forms with the court clerk.
Generally speaking, you will file for divorce in the county in California where you reside or live. Once you review all of your forms yourself or with your attorney, and the forms are served on the other party, you can file the forms you served as well as the proof that you served them with the court clerk. This, along with a filing fee or fee waiver, will open the case.
Finalizing an uncontested divorce is generally a straightforward process, meaning your spouse agrees with the terms and all that is left is to put the agreed upon terms in writing. This agreement includes how you wish to divide your property, financial support agreements, and any child custody or visitation agreements if you share a child or children. Once all of the paperwork is complete and the divorce terms are in writing, you may fill out the final forms and submit them to the county court for a judge to review and issue a final judgment.
If you and your soon-to-be-ex generally agree on most issues and you have an amicable process to resolve any remaining issues, the divorce could be finalized in a relatively short period of time such as one to three months.
If your spouse does contest the divorce, or does not agree to the terms you requested initially, you may move forward with alternative dispute resolution, such as mediation, in order to try to resolve any outstanding issues. If mediation or negotiation is not successful, the case will continue to proceed through the court process. The divorce process may include motion hearings, custody evaluations, continued negotiations, and if there is no resolution, a trial. As the case nears conclusion, a trial date is set and at a trial the judge decides on the terms of your divorce.
The more you disagree on, generally the longer your divorce will take. When big issues such as financial support and custody are in dispute, the matter may take anywhere from three months up to a year or more to resolve. Getting the advice of a divorce lawyer can help you plan ahead in order to make sure to minimize the length – and stress – of the proceedings.
California provides an option for divorce through a process called summary dissolution. This allows you and your spouse to quickly obtain a divorce if you both meet specific requirements such as:
A summary dissolution can be an easy path to divorce if you qualify under the law. You may be able to expedite the process so it is worth it to get legal advice on whether you can go this route.
Some marriages may not be considered legally valid under California law. When granted an annulment in California, the state treats you and your partner as if the marriage never occurred and there is no spousal support or division of property. You and your partner eligible to seek out an annulment if:
Annulments are rare proceedings, but an option if you find that your circumstances fit under this these criteria. You can learn more information on how to get an annulment by speaking with an experienced family law attorney.
California has a filing fee of $435 for divorces. In the event your spouse files a response to your initial petition, then your spouse must pay a fee of $435 as well. As you move through the process, there may be additional fees for court filings, mediation, or other costs your divorce proceeding may require. You may ask the court for a fee waiver if you cannot afford to pay the initial fee or other court costs.
While divorce may be common, when you go through it yourself, you still deserve dedicated, personal focus on your rights and unique situation. An experienced divorce lawyer can help you figure out the best way forward, explain the law, and represent you in court if it is ever necessary. Take the first step now and contact a local divorce attorney to discuss your divorce.