How to File for Divorce in California

How to File for Divorce
in California

Just as every couple is unique, there are different divorce scenarios. Even though specific state laws and county rules govern marriage dissolution in California, a lot depends on the spouses themselves.

They can choose the grounds for divorce, the type of procedure (contested, uncontested divorce, or summary dissolution), the type of legal representation, etc. All these factors can significantly affect the big picture, including the length and the cost of divorce.

To better understand the California divorce process, let's consider its main stages, rules and requirements, and the most common divorce options.

Residency Requirements

All states require at least one of the spouses to be a resident to apply for divorce within that state. The residency requirements vary from six weeks to two years in the U.S.

For California courts to have jurisdiction over a divorce case, either spouse must have lived in California for the past six months. Along with that, the divorce can be filed in the county where one of the spouses has lived for at least three months.

Grounds for Divorce

The divorce process starts with filing the Petition (or Joint Petition for Summary Dissolution) with the Clerk of the Court's office. This legal document includes essential information regarding the marriage and must contain one of the grounds for divorce provided by Family Law. Grounds for divorce are legally recognized reasons to dissolve a marriage in the state.

No-Fault Grounds

California is a no-fault divorce state, meaning that the spouse initiating the case cannot specify any fault ground as the cause for the marriage breakdown. Therefore, there is no need to prove the other spouse's misconduct in court.

No-fault grounds for divorce in California include:

  • Irreconcilable differences that caused the irremediable breakdown of the marriage. Any of the spouses' disagreements can fall within this definition.
  • Permanent legal incapacity to make decisions, including incurable insanity. This statement must be proven by competent medical or psychiatric testimony to be valid.

Filing for a Summary Dissolution, both parties must agree to terminate the marriage based on "Irreconcilable Differences."

Fault Grounds

Fault-based grounds mean that one spouse states the other spouse did something wrong to cause the marriage breakup.

Nowadays, two-thirds of U.S. states allow spouses to allege the other spouse's fault as a cause for a divorce, even if some no-fault grounds for divorce (like irreconcilable differences, incompatibility, or separation) are also recognized by their Family Law.

The most common fault grounds for divorce include adultery, cruelty, criminal conviction, abandonment or desertion for a certain period of time, drug and alcohol abuse, refusal or neglect to provide support, etc.

As mentioned above, the California Code does not provide fault grounds for divorce. It’s one of 17 (plus the District of Columbia) pure no-fault divorce states where the plaintiff is not permitted to place blame for the divorce on the defendant.

How to File an Uncontested Divorce

California Code provides a framework for the divorce procedure, establishing the residency requirements, grounds for divorce, and waiting period, which cannot be changed.

Nevertheless, there is no single answer for how divorce in California works. Each specific case largely depends on the number of conflicts between the spouses and their desire to resolve them peacefully.

An uncontested divorce means that the spouses can resolve all their disputes concerning property and debts division, alimony, child support, child custody, etc., without litigation.

The spouses can negotiate independently or seek the assistance of a mediator to create a Settlement Agreement concerning all of the above issues and submit it for court approval.

Typically, such an out-of-court process saves time and money and reduces stress commonly associated with court battles.

Generally, California laws provide two uncontested divorce options: regular uncontested divorce and Summary Dissolution.

Regular Uncontested Divorce

Filing for a regular uncontested divorce involves the following steps:

  1. First, a person initiating the case (the plaintiff) must select and complete the divorce forms, which are required according to the circumstances of their case.
  2. Then, the plaintiff must file the initial forms, including Petition, Summons, and Proof of Service of Summons, with the Court Clerk's Office.
  3. At the moment of filing, the plaintiff has to pay a court filing fee.
  4. Besides, the plaintiff should make at least two copies of all the documents. The original Petition stays with the court, one of the copies belongs to the plaintiff, and the other must be delivered to the other spouse (the defendant), following the Rules of Civil Procedure.
  5. Then, the mandatory waiting period begins. Under California Family Law, even an uncontested divorce cannot be finalized until six months from the date of service of divorce papers. During this period, the spouses have to file the rest of the divorce paperwork.
  6. In most cases, the spouses do not have to appear in court to finalize the divorce if all the papers are completed correctly and the judge considers their Settlement Agreement fair and reasonable.

Summary Dissolution

As for Summary Dissolution, in addition to entering into a Settlement Agreement, the spouses must also meet the following requirements:

  • the spouses do not have any minor children, and the wife is not pregnant;
  • the spouses have been married for less than five years;
  • the spouses do not own real estate;
  • the spouses' assets are less than $47,000 together and separately;
  • neither party is seeking alimony.

Unlike a regular uncontested divorce, the Summary Dissolution procedure allows the spouses to file a Joint Petition and avoid the service of the process. Thus, the spouses file the needed divorce forms with the court together, and their divorce will be final six months from that date.

DIY Divorce

A DIY divorce is another word for Pro Se divorce, or, simply, divorce without an attorney.

California laws do not prohibit anyone from representing themselves in a divorce case. However, the do-it-yourself option is generally not recommended for complex, contested divorces. It can be risky and lead to unfavorable outcomes, especially if the other spouse chooses to hire a full-service lawyer.

Divorce Without a Lawyer

Divorce without a lawyer can be a good idea if both spouses are willing to negotiate and achieve an amicable divorce. Instead of hiring separate lawyers, they still may use alternative dispute resolution methods (like mediation), unbundled legal services, or online divorce services to reduce divorce costs.

Generally, the simpler the divorce case, the less assistance may be needed. For example, as Summary Dissolution is the easiest way to dissolve the marriage in California, many couples filing for Summary Dissolution prefer to take full responsibility for completing the divorce paperwork and thus save money.

They can use a self-help guide provided by the California Judicial Branch website to get all the necessary information for Pro Se litigants.

How to File a Contested Divorce

Unlike an uncontested divorce, a contested divorce occurs when the spouses cannot agree on the final terms of their divorce out of court. Thus, a contested divorce typically involves a trial, where the judge hears both spouses and issues a final judgment of divorce (divorce decree) following the California Family Law.

Contested divorces typically require more time and money than agreed divorces. To advocate their interests in court, the spouses usually hire separate attorneys who charge an hourly rate. The more prolonged the divorce, the more expensive it is.

However, the filing procedure is the same for uncontested and contested divorces. The first step is completing and filing initial divorce forms with the court. Next, the plaintiff must pay a court filing fee and serve the other spouse with copies of the Petition and Summons (the defendant needs to file their response).

Besides, either spouse may ask the court for a temporary order and bring the case to a trial.

Filing Fees

A filing fee is a payment charged for the court services needed to begin a court case, and divorce is no exception.

A court filing fee of $435 is mandatory in all cases, regardless of whether it is a contested or uncontested divorce.

However, if the plaintiff cannot afford filing fees due to financial hardship and can prove it (for example, if they are on public benefits or have a low income), they can ask the court to file for divorce for free by completing a Request to Waive Court Fees form.

Serving Documents on the Defendant

Once the Petition is filed with the court, the plaintiff must notify the other spouse (the defendant) of the case by formally delivering copies of the Petition and Summons. It is called the service of process.

A plaintiff cannot just hand the divorce papers to the second spouse on their own. California divorce procedure requires that the personal service can be accomplished by:

  • the county sheriff (for an additional fee of $40);
  • a professional process server;
  • or any adult person who is not a party to the case.

Besides, in some cases, when the defendant resides in another state, serving divorce papers is allowed by mail (or by certified mail with a return receipt requested). If the plaintiff cannot locate the defendant, they can ask the court to serve them by publication.

The process of serving divorce papers must be confirmed by a Proof of Service of Summons filed by the server. In case of service by mail, a Notice and Acknowledgment of Receipt must be used.

Online Divorce

Each divorce case requires proper paperwork, no matter how simple it is, because the court can reject the submitted divorce forms if there is even a single mistake.

Indeed, legal terminology can be tricky for anyone without relevant background. What’s more, some counties may have unique divorce forms. All this can make the preparation for divorce a really complicated and confusing process. Therefore, many divorcing couples attempting a DIY divorce take advantage of online divorce services.

Online divorce helps avoid the main DIY divorce pitfalls associated with paperwork. It provides a quick and straightforward way to complete all the necessary divorce forms on your own without leaving home.

All you have to do is complete the online questionnaire on the website and provide your case details. Then, you will get the whole package of divorce forms selected and filled out based on your answers and comprehensive step-by-step instructions on how to file your documents with the court. The completed ready-to-sign divorce forms are typically available for download within two business days.

Online divorce can be a great bargain for those who file for an uncontested divorce and do not need legal advice. The services' fees start from $159, compared to the average attorneys' flat fee, which is about $3,500 per uncontested case.

Thus, avoiding traditional litigation of a contested divorce gives the spouses more flexibility and freedom in arranging their case and managing legal costs.

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