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.

Updated by , Legal Editor

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.

What to Know Before Filing for a California Divorce

Before you begin the process of filing for divorce in California, you should learn the answers to a few preliminary questions.

Do You Meet California's Residency Requirements for Divorce?

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:

  • for six months in the state, and
  • for three months in the county where you file the paperwork.

(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).)

Will Your Divorce Be Uncontested or Contested?

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.

Will You Need Professional Help With Your Divorce?

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 use one or more of the following professional resources:

  • Mediation. If you want an uncontested divorce but are having trouble working through disagreements with your spouse about any or all of the issues, divorce mediation may help you find solutions that work for both of you. Mediators will usually prepare a written document that reflects any agreements you've reached during the process. And some mediation services may even help with the filing process.
  • Online divorce. You can save time and headaches by filing for divorce online. As long as you have an uncontested divorce, an online divorce service will provide you with the necessary forms, complete them for you (based on your answers to an online questionnaire), and basically walk you through the filing process. Some services will also file the forms for you, for an additional fee.
  • Consulting lawyer. You may consult with a lawyer on a limited basis to help you prepare for mediation, to draft your settlement agreement or give you an independent legal review of the agreement, or simply to get answers to specific legal questions you might have.

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.

Whether you plan to handle your divorce yourself or to hire a lawyer, the information below will help you understand the steps in the process.

Steps for Filing Divorce Paperwork in California

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. If you're the "petitioner" (meaning you'll file the initial divorce papers), you'll need to download and complete the "forms to start a divorce," including:

  • the Petition—Marriage (Family Law Form FL-100) and, if you need more room than is provided on that form for listing your property and debts, the optional Property Declaration (FL-160)
  • the Summons (FL-110)
  • if you have children under 18 with your spouse, the Declaration Under Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (FL-105/GC-120), plus the optional Child Custody and Visitation Application Attachment (FL-311) if you want to include details about parenting schedules and the like.

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.

Completing the California Divorce Papers

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 Divorce Paperwork in Court

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. The fee for a dissolution petition is $435 (as of September 2022), but it's always subject to change. 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 With the Divorce Papers

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'll generally need to file a response and related forms with the court within 30 days. You can download and complete the following forms (from the California courts website):

  • the Response—Marriage (FL-120)
  • either the 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, and
  • if you and your spouse have minor children, the Declaration Under Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (FL-105/GC-120) and, if you choose, the optional Child Custody and Visitation Application Attachment (FL-311).

You'll also need to pay a filing fee (the same amount as the petition), 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 Required in California

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.

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