Filing for divorce in California (where it's legally called "dissolution of marriage") involves a lot of forms and some important legal steps. But it doesn't have to be all that difficult if you and your spouse can cooperate and work together. Here's what you need to know to get started with a California divorce.
Before you begin the process of filing for divorce in California, you should learn the answers to a few preliminary questions.
To get a dissolution of marriage in California, you must meet two residency requirements as of the date when you file the initial divorce papers. Either you or your spouse must have lived:
(Cal. Fam. Code § 2320 (2022).)
Also, if you have minor children, there are additional requirements if your divorce is going to address any issues related to custody, including a parenting or visitation schedule. Usually, the affected children must have lived with a parent figure in the state for the six-month period just before the filing date (or since birth for any child who's less than six months old). If you don't meet the six-month requirement, you should speak to an experienced family lawyer to see if you can qualify for any of the complicated exceptions in the law. (Cal. Fam. Code § 3421 (2022).)
If you can qualify for an uncontested divorce in California, the entire process will be easier, quicker, and less expensive than a traditional, contested divorce. But you and your spouse will need to have a marital settlement agreement that covers all of the legal issues involved in ending your marriage, including:
California also has a special streamlined procedure for getting an uncontested divorce known as "summary dissolution," but there's a long list of requirements that will rule out many divorcing couples.
You can probably handle filing for divorce yourself if you and your spouse have a settlement agreement and your situation is relatively uncomplicated. A DIY divorce will be the cheapest way to end your marriage. However, you will need to take some time and pay attention to the details, to make sure you have all the right forms, have filled them out correctly, and have followed all of the steps and requirements for divorce in California.
Even if you don't have an attorney represent you throughout the process, there are other ways of getting help with your California divorce. For example, you could do one or more of the following:
If you aren't able to reach a settlement agreement, you'll need to go through the process of a traditional, contested divorce. That will almost always require hiring a lawyer, who will handle the filing process as well as all of the other legal matters in your case. Often, couples who start out with a contested divorce are eventually able to reach a settlement, usually with the help of their lawyers, mediation, or both.
Legal representation is also recommended in some other situations, such as when your spouse has already hired a lawyer or if you've experienced abuse in your marriage.
If you think you might be able to handle a DIY divorce in California, the information below will help you understand the steps in the process.
To begin the filing process, you'll need to find and complete some standard forms. You can download the forms from the California Courts website. The site provides instructions for every form, as well as information on the legal steps involved in divorce. It's a good idea to review all of these instructions as you work your way through the California divorce process.
Each of California's courts use the same basic set of divorce forms. Generally speaking, you can expect to find two kinds of divorce documents: one for the petitioner (the spouse who is requesting the divorce by filing the initial petition) and one for the respondent (the other spouse).
If you are the petitioner and are beginning the divorce process:
If you're the respondent and have been served with the petitioner's initial divorce papers:
If you qualify for a summary dissolution, you and your spouse will be able to file a joint petition (rather than a separate petition and response), along with your settlement agreement and the required disclosures (more on that below).
Depending on where you live, you might have to complete additional forms along with the statewide forms. If you have questions about which forms to use, visit one of the legal self-help centers across California or talk with your local court clerk.
The Los Angeles 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.
Many of the divorce forms from the California Courts website are fillable, meaning that you can complete them on your computer (without any additional software) and print them. Be thorough and accurate when you're filling out the forms. Making a mistake could lead to having your paperwork rejected—or to other problems down the road. Also, be sure to check which forms must be notarized. When that's the case, don't sign them until you're with a notary.
You may ask the family law facilitator or self-help center in your county to review the forms and make sure you've filled them out correctly. Make two copies of the completed forms—one for your spouse and one to keep.
When you're ready, go to your local courthouse and ask to file the documents. (You can use this online questionnaire to make sure you're filing in the right county.)
You'll need to pay a filing fee with the initial paperwork. (As of 2022, the fee for a dissolution petition is $435.) However, if you can't afford to pay, you may ask for a fee waiver by filing a Request to Waive Court Fees (Form FW-001). Keep in mind that you may be asked to provide detailed financial information to prove to the judge that you qualify for the waiver.
The court clerk will stamp your documents and return your copies.
Unless you and your spouse have filed a joint petition for summary dissolution, you will need to deliver your petition and other forms to your spouse through what's known as "service of process." Service of process is important in the U.S. legal system because it ensures that everyone has notice about what's going on and an opportunity to appear in court and argue their point of view.
As the petitioner, you may not serve your spouse by merely handing over the divorce papers. Instead, you generally arrange to have the documents hand delivered by a county sheriff, professional process server, or another responsible adult who is not involved in the case. However, if you think your spouse will cooperate, you can use service by mail and provide a Notice and Acknowledgement of Receipt (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. After you've completed service, you must file a completed Proof of Service of Summons (FL-115) with the court.
Different rules might apply if you're 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.
If you are the respondent in a California divorce, you should generally file your response and related forms with the court within 30 days. You'll also need to pay a filing fee, serve your spouse with the response forms, and file proof of service with the court.
If you and your spouse have a signed and notarized settlement agreement, you may be able to skip filing a response and get a California default divorce with written agreement. Even without an agreement, your spouse could ask to proceed with an ordinary default divorce if you don't file a response, but you both should consider the pros and cons before taking this step.
California requires that divorcing spouses exchange detailed information about their finances. Within 60 days after you've filed the divorce petition or response (or with the initial paperwork), you must serve your spouse with the following completed forms:
Make sure that your answers on the forms are clear, detailed, and honest. You'll also need to attach some supplemental documents, like pay stubs and tax returns.
After you've had the forms served on your spouse, file the Declaration Regarding Service of Declaration of Disclosure (FL-141) with the court.