This article in part of our series about "Divorce in California". You can find the links to the other articles at the bottom of the article.
So you and your spouse are unsatisfied in your marriage (or domestic partnership) and have decided to call it quits. Before you dive into the divorce process itself, you’ll need to make sure that you’re eligible for a California divorce in the first place.
This means that you’ll have to meet the state residency requirement. California law provides that in order to qualify for a California divorce, at least one person in the marriage has to have been a resident of the state for a minimum of six months before filing for divorce. In addition, one spouse has to have lived in the court filing county for a minimum of three months.
The same residency rules apply if you wish to dissolve a domestic partnership. In fact, the entire divorce process is basically identical to the domestic partnership dissolution process, just with slightly different paperwork. So, please keep in mind that every time we mention divorce or refer to your spouse, the same information applies to you and your domestic partner.
Notably, the process is very different for an annulment. In that situation, you and your spouse will need to prove that your marriage was never valid in the first place, and a California court will then issue a decree of nullity.
How to File for Divorce in California
Now that you have established your eligibility for a California divorce, let’s get into the step-by-step process of how to file for divorce in California.
Step 1: Filing the Petition
The first step in the divorce process is filing the divorce petition with your county’s court clerk. This first piece of divorce paperwork initiates the divorce proceedings.
Under California divorce law, the spouse who files the petition becomes known as the petitioner, and the other spouse is referred to as the respondent. These terms will be used to identify you and your spouse throughout subsequent divorce documents.
Generally, it does not matter who is the petitioner and who is the respondent, because California family law does not allow divorcing couples to a legal fault. Instead, your California divorce papers will reflect that you have decided to end your marriage due to “irreconcilable differences.”
A key exception to this generalization is when you are a survivor of domestic violence at the hands of your spouse. If that is your situation, you will definitely want to file the petition yourself, because initiating the divorce case will give you the opportunity to obtain a restraining order if the court deems it necessary.
Whoever files the petition will also be responsible for paying a filing fee of $435 at this time. If you cannot afford the fee, you can instead request a fee waiver from the court.
Often, the date the petition is filed will serve as your legal separation date. In this situation, legal separation just means the moment at which the irreconcilable differences occurred. After your legal separation date, you and your spouse will no longer accrue community property.
Step 2: Serving Your Spouse
Once you have filed the petition, you will need to serve your spouse. This just means giving your spouse formal notice that a divorce case has begun and providing them with a copy of all of the divorce forms that you have completed so far.
Since this is formal notice, there are some restrictions regarding who is allowed to serve the respondent. In California, you can either hire a professional process server or request the help of anyone over the age of 18 who is not a party to the case.
If you and your spouse are on good terms, you also have the option of serving them by mail, in which case they will need to sign and return a document acknowledging that they have been served.
Step 3: Waiting for a Response
Once you have served your spouse, they will have 30 days to complete a parallel set of court forms called the response. They too will need to file their forms with the court clerk.
If your spouse fails to file the response within this timeframe, the court has the ability to issue a default judgment against them. This means that they will not be able to voice their preferences regarding family law matters like child custody, child support, spousal support, and how community property should be distributed.
Step 4: Reaching a Deal
Assuming that the respondent has avoided default judgment, you will now both be involved in resolving the aforementioned issues of child custody, child support, spousal support, and how community property should be distributed. You can do this with a divorce attorney, through divorce mediation, all on your own, or aided by an online divorce platform.
The nature of your divorce process will be highly dependent upon you and your spouse’s ability to amicably negotiate.
If you are able to reach an agreement without intervention from the court, you are said to have undergone an uncontested divorce. If you do end up in court, then you will have undergone a contested divorce.
Unsurprisingly, uncontested divorces are generally much faster and less expensive than contested divorces. One reason for this is that if your divorce is uncontested, you may be eligible for what’s called a summary dissolution.
A summary dissolution, as the name implies, is a sort of abbreviated divorce process. Besides reaching a settlement agreement without court intervention, you must also be married for less than five years, have no children together, have limited shared debts and assets, and both agree to waive spousal support in order to be eligible for summary dissolution.
Generally speaking, neither party hires a divorce lawyer for an uncontested divorce. Sometimes divorcing couples will pay for just an hour or two with an attorney in order to obtain some basic legal advice, but then do the bulk of the work on their own or through an online platform.
If your case is contested, a good attorney will advocate for you and help to get you the best deal possible. You should be advised, however, that what they can do is quite limited by California family law.
If you end up in court, the judge will generally apply a standardized formula for determining spousal and child support and then issue a spousal or child support order. You and your spouse will each keep 100% of your separate property, and your community property will be split up 50/50, even if that means that indivisible shared assets need to be sold off.
While child custody inevitably requires more holistic review, California courts will always order shared custody unless one parent is clearly unfit. That’s because maintaining a comprehensive relationship with both parents is presumed to be in the best interest of the child.
Step 5: Obtaining a Final Judgment
Now that you and your spouse have divided up your lives (by either negotiation or an order from a judge), you are ready to finalize your divorce.
A judge will make sure that all previous documents have been properly filed. If your divorce settlement was negotiated amongst yourselves, then she will also review your plan to make sure that it does not appear coercive.
If everything is in order, you will then receive a final divorce judgment. Congratulations! You made it through this intimidating process in one piece.
How much does a divorce cost in California?
This depends a lot on what kind of divorce you and your spouse are getting. For the simplest uncontested cases, it’s possible for the filing fee to be your only expense, but only if you’re willing to fill out a stack of complicated forms yourselves.
If you make it all the way to court and each of you are working with an attorney, then your California divorce can run you tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Working with an online divorce platform gives you the best of both worlds. With this option, you’ll pay a small flat fee to have someone else fill out the documents for you. More comprehensive platforms like It’s Over Easy will even track and manage your case, leaving you the headspace for more important things.
How long does it take to get a divorce in California?
The minimum amount of time that a divorce can take under California law is six months. However, most California divorces take a bit longer.
Some divorcing couples need extra time to reach a deal, and sometimes the court just isn’t working as efficiently as we would like it to. Most California divorces will end up taking somewhere between 8 and 18 months.
How long do you have to be separated in California before you can file for divorce?
You do not have to be separated at all before you file a divorce petition. However, there is a mandatory six month waiting period between when you file the petition and when a judge will issue a final judgment.
How can you file for divorce in California by yourself?
There are two major ways to file for divorce without having to hire a lawyer: you can either manage the entire process yourself, or you can work with an online platform.
If you want to manage your own divorce from start to finish, you can usually find the necessary forms on your local court’s website.
Make sure to visit your specific county’s website. Most family law is at the state level, but different counties can sometimes have slightly different documents, requirements, or fees.
Filling these forms out can be a tedious process -- think doing your own taxes.
You’ll also be responsible for filing your forms with the county clerk. This means paying attention to deadlines, and you may end up having to redo documents if they aren’t completed 100% correctly.
The easier way to file for divorce in California without the aid of an attorney is to get divorced via an online platform. This is what we typically recommend to couples who are trying to save on attorney’s fees.
When you work with an online platform, you are charged a flat fee in exchange for them filling out the forms for you. Beyond that, services vary depending on which platform and which package you choose.
More comprehensive platforms guarantee your forms and will redo them on the house if the court rejects them for any reason.
Courts are very particular, and this happens from time to time, even when an expert is doing the work. So, we really recommend finding a platform with this policy.
The most comprehensive platforms (like It’s Over Easy) will track your case from start to finish. You will simply answer a series of questions when you register, and they will move your case through the court system until you are granted a divorce decree.
To continue learning about divorce in California, see the following articles in the series: