Basics of Filing for Divorce in California

Wondering where to begin and how to file a divorce? Learn about the necessary forms and instructions to file for a divorce in California.

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Preparing Your Forms

In order to start the divorce process without a lawyer, you’ll need to complete some standard forms. You can obtain the forms online, on the California Courts website. The California courts provide instructions for every form in video and PDF format, and it's a good idea to review them as you work your way through the process.

California's courts all use the same basic set of forms, but there may be some required, additional forms that vary depending on where you live. To find out if you need to complete additional forms, go to this page and select your courthouse. The link will take you to the website for the correct court, and from there you can navigate to any additional required divorce forms. Always double-check with your local court to make sure the judges there will accept these forms.

The Los Angeles County Superior Court website is a good example of what you can expect to find when you navigate to your county court's website and divorce forms index. It provides links for all the local forms that Los Angeles County judges will expect you to submit along with the basic, statewide California forms.

When you complete the forms, be thorough and complete in responding to the questions. Fill out the forms on a computer if you can. If not, write or print neatly and legibly.

Generally speaking, you can expect to find two kinds of divorce documents: one for the petitioner (the spouse who is initiating the divorce) and one for the respondent (the spouse who has been served with divorce papers).

If you are the petitioner and you are beginning the divorce process:

  • You will need to download and complete the Petition—Marriage (Family Law Form FL-100), the Summons (Family Law Form FL-110), and Proof of Service of Summons (Family Law Form FL-115).
  • If you have children under the age of 18 with your spouse, you should also complete the Declaration Under Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (Family Law Form FL-105/GC-120), the Child Custody and Visitation Application Attachment (optional Family Law Form FL-311), and the Property Declaration (optional Family Law Form FL-160).
  • Do not sign any declarations or sworn statements unless and until you're in the presence of a notary.

If you're the respondent and you've been served with the petitioner's initial divorce papers:

  • Complete the Response—Marriage (Family Law Form FL-120) and either Proof of Personal Service (Family Law Form FL-330) or Proof of Service by Mail (Family Law Form FL-335), depending on how you plan to serve the response. If you have children under the age of 18 with the petitioner, also complete the Declaration Under Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (Family Form FL-105/GC-120) and the Child Custody and Visitation Application Attachment (optional Family Form FL-311).
  • Don't sign any declarations or sworn statements unless you're with a notary.

Filing Your Forms

When you’re ready, go to your local courthouse and ask to file the documents. At a minimum, you'll be filing the summons, petition, and, if you have children, the Declaration Under Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act.

You’ll need to pay a fee unless you complete the Request to Waive Court Fees (Form FW-001), which will be reviewed by the court. If the court agrees that the fee should be waived because you can’t afford it, you won't have to pay to file documents in your case. You can view written and video instructions regarding fee waivers here.

When you give your documents to the clerk of court, they will be stamped and you'll receive copies. Serve your spouse with a copy of the stamped documents as soon as possible after leaving.

Serving Your Forms

When you’ve prepared and filed your forms, you should immediately serve your spouse with the documents. Service of process is very important in the American legal system because it ensures that everyone has notice about what’s going on and an opportunity to “appear,” or argue, their point of view. Service of process ensures that no one is ever “ambushed” in a courtroom.

If your spouse is an adult who is pro se (meaning, has not hired a lawyer), then you should serve your spouse directly at the location at your spouse’s home address. If your spouse has retained a lawyer, serve the lawyer at the lawyer’s office and don’t send copies to your spouse.

If you are the petitioner, special service rules apply when you serve the first documents in the case.

  • You can serve your documents by having a county sheriff, professional process server, or a responsible friend or relative over the age of 18 who is not involved in the case, hand deliver them to your spouse.
  • If you think your spouse will cooperate, you can use service by mail and provide a Notice and Acknowledgement of Receipt (Family Law Form FL-117), which your spouse will have to complete and return to you for filing with the court.
  • Make sure to serve copies of everything you filed with the court, plus a blank response form and a blank Declaration Under Uniform Child Custody and Jurisdiction Enforcement Act form.
  • For more information about service, check this page.

Different rules may apply if you are trying to serve someone who is hard to locate, in the military, or in jail. Check with the clerk of court for more information about these unusual situations.

Financial Disclosures

After the case begins, you also have to provide information about your financial status to the court and your spouse. To do so, complete the Declaration of Disclosure (Family Law Form FL-140) and either the Income and Expense Declaration (Family Law Form FL-150) or the Financial Statement (Simplified Family Law Form FL-155). To decide whether to use the declaration or the financial statement, view these instructions.

You'll also need to complete the Schedule of Assets and Debts (Family Law Form FL-142) and the Declaration Regarding Service of Declaration of Disclosure (Family Law Form FL-141), which is proof of service.

These documents detail each spouse’s financial picture, from employment to assets to liabilities and monthly expenses. Certain supplemental documents, like pay stubs and tax returns, may have to be attached. This helps everyone to understand more about, for example, how much child support should be paid, or whether one spouse should receive alimony. Make sure you are clear, detailed, and candid when you complete this form. You'll need to serve these forms on your spouse, and file your proof of service with the court.

Additional Resources

See our page on California Divorce and Family Laws to find a wealth of information on divorce, as well as related legal issues like property division, child custody, alimony and more.

If you need extra help or if you just have questions, the California Judicial Branch hosts a Divorce or Separation Self-Help website that offers information and resources on divorce and parenting issues.

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