How Do I File for Divorce in California?

Learn about the forms and steps you need to file for divorce in California—and how to get help with the process.

Filing for divorce in California (where it's legally called "dissolution of marriage") involves a lot of forms and some important legal steps. There are basically three different ways for getting through the filing process:

  • the do-it-yourself (DIY) option, which involves finding, completing, and filing all of the forms yourself
  • using an online divorce service for help with the paperwork, and
  • hiring a lawyer to handle it all for you.

As we'll explain, your choice between these options will depend on your resources—how much money and time you have—as well as the specifics of your case.

DIY Divorce Filing in California

To begin the process of a DIY divorce in California, you'll need to find and complete some standard forms to begin the process. 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:

  • You will need to download and complete the Petition—Marriage (Family Law Form FL-100) and the Summons (FL-110). If you need more room than is provided on the standard petition for listing your property and debts, you can use the optional Property Declaration (FL-160).
  • If you have children under the age of 18 with your spouse, you must also complete the Declaration Under Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (FL-105/GC-120). It's a good idea to include the Child Custody and Visitation Application Attachment (FL-311), which is optional but covers more details about parenting schedules and the like.

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

  • Complete the Response—Marriage (FL-120) and either Proof of Personal Service (FL-330) or Proof of Service by Mail (FL-335), depending on how you plan to deliver your response to the petitioner.
  • If you have children under the age of 18 with the petitioner, complete the Declaration Under Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (FL-105/GC-120). You may also include the Child Custody and Visitation Application Attachment (FL-311).

If you qualify for the simplified divorce process known as "summary dissolution" in California, 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.

Completing the California Divorce 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.

Filing Your Forms

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 2021, the fee 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.

Serving Your Spouse

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.

Filing the Response Papers

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.

Financial Disclosures

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:

  • the Declaration of Disclosure (Family Law Form FL-140)
  • the Income and Expense Declaration (FL-150) or the simplified Financial Statement ( FL-155), and
  • the Schedule of Assets and Debts (FL-142) or Property Declaration (FL-160).

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.

Using Online Divorce in California

Even with the online resources in California, it can be a daunting and time-consuming task to get all of these forms and complete them correctly. That's where online divorce comes in. Based on your answers to an online questionnaire or interview, an online divorce service will provide you with the completed paperwork you need to file for divorce and tell you how and where to file the forms. Some services will also file the forms for you for an additional fee.

You will have to pay a fee or monthly subscription for this service. (DivorceNet's Online Divorce has a one-time flat fee.) But as long as you're eligible for online divorce (more on that below), you'll save a lot of money compared to the cost of hiring lawyers. And compared to doing all the work yourself, you'll save time, headaches, and guesswork. (Learn more about filing for online divorce.)

Choosing the Appropriate Method of Filing for Divorce

As a general rule, DIY divorce or online divorce is appropriate when you can file for an uncontested divorce in California, which basically means that you and your spouse have already agreed about how you will handle all of the key issues in your divorce, including;

If you're having trouble working out a marital settlement agreement, mediation can help.

Still, you may want or need to hire a divorce lawyer under various circumstances, including when you simply can't agree with your spouse or you have complicated assets to split.

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