How to Get Divorced in California in 3 Easy Steps
Divorce in California is complicated. There are tons of forms to complete, specific timelines to meet, and court filings to navigate—all while the emotional weight of dismantling a marriage runs in the background. It’s a lot to think about. But don’t worry, at Hello Divorce we’ve broken it down into three easy-to-follow steps. And while the process does involve a good amount of work, we’ve gathered all the information you need for a smart, hassle-free divorce. We’re here to support and guide you and help you stay the course.
Assuming your divorce is amicable (or heading in that direction), you can take care of all three steps without full representation by a lawyer. Seriously. Even though this is a process that you can’t avoid if you want to end your marriage—it doesn’t mean you need to struggle with it alone or spend $26,300 (the average cost of divorce per person in California for disputes involving children).
We’ll walk you through this one step at a time and provide links to resources along the way. In fact, we’ve guided and coached thousands of people through the process before you—so we know divorce inside out. Plus, we really like helping (and we’re good at it).
Step 1: File a Petition (and Response)
Every divorce (or domestic partnership dissolution) starts with the petition. A petition is a legal document that informs the court that you’d like to end a marriage and provides the legal reasons for the divorce. If you file first, you’re called the petitioner. Your spouse is called the respondent. Although it may seem better to file first, there is generally no legal advantage to being the petitioner. Both parties are granted the same rights under law. You can access the forms you will need through our Divorce Navigator form-generating software.
If your spouse files the petition, you file a form called a response. Once you’ve been served, you have 30 days to file your response unless (a) you do not object to the requests articulated in your spouse’s petition; (b) your spouse has granted you an extension (in writing) to hold off on filing a response while the two of you mediate or negotiate the issues involved in your divorce (assets, debts, kids, financial support, attorney fees, etc.); or (c) you are filing another document to try and dismiss or move the divorce to another county or state.
You do not have to file a response; however, it’s often a good idea to do so (especially if you think your divorce will be contested). If you are considering not filing a response, proceed with caution and only after obtaining the advice of an experienced divorce lawyer. Why is this such a big deal? If you do not file a response and your divorce turns ugly, your spouse can file a “request for default.” A default effectively takes away your leverage and your voice. Your spouse is free to proceed without you. Because most of us have at least some assets, money, personal property, gifts, vehicles, and debts, as well as some exposure to pay financial support or right to receive it, we usually recommend that you file a response so that you can protect your interests.
The petitioner also files a summons. It has some basic restraining orders that apply to both parties and contains some standard limits on what each of you can do with your property, money, and other assets or debts. Among other things, both parties are ordered by the court not to:
- Remove kids from the state
- Cash, borrow against, cancel, or change beneficiaries of any insurance policy
- Create a will or trust that affects the disposition of joint or separate property
- Transfer, borrow against, conceal, or dispose of any property (without written consent of the other party or court order)
Divorces take at least six months and one day after the petition and summons are served (that’s just the way it is). If that feels like too long to go without help from the court, you don’t have to wait until your divorce is final. At any time during your divorce, you can request orders from the court to assist with child custody and visitation, child support, spousal support, lawyer fees, and exclusive use of home or financial accounts, payments of debts, and other temporary property orders. Need help strategizing your request for orders? Schedule a legal coaching session.
Keep in mind that it usually takes four to eight weeks to obtain a court date. If you have “exigent circumstances” (such as your spouse won’t allow you to see your kids or you don’t have enough money to pay for basic necessities such as food or rent), you should consider filing an additional document with your request for orders. This process is called an “Ex Parte” and/or a Request for an “Order Shortening Time.” If you and your spouse can come to an agreement before the actual hearing, you can prepare, sign, and file what’s called a “Stipulation and Order” (and avoid several steps). Use our template or hire us to prepare and file the docs for you. Also know that you might have to be involved in other court hearings during this first step, depending on how complex or contested your case is.
Step 2: Exchange Financial Disclosures
In the second step of the divorce process, you are required to exchange court forms called Preliminary (or Final) Declaration of Disclosure that divulge complete information about your income (from all sources), expenses, property, and debts with your spouse. Even if you already have a full agreement with your spouse (good for you!), you still must exchange these documents. What sort of personal documents will you need to complete this step? Things like the last two years of filed tax returns, the last two months of employment pay stubs, your most recent checking and savings account statements, and your most recent mortgage statements to name a few. However, if you or your spouse did not file a response back in step 1, the person who did not respond does not have to prepare disclosures.
We’ve got all of the resources you’ll need for putting together your financial disclosures. We know this step is hard, but we’re here to help you through it. Check out our membership options. You can also choose to work with an experienced divorce lawyer who will review the disclosures before you file them or who will skillfully prepare all of the mandatory financial documents for you.
Step 3: Complete Written Agreement + Judgment Forms
There are different ways you and your ex can come to a final agreement. First, start with our divorce worksheet to ensure you know all the issues that need to be resolved before you finalize your divorce. Consider speaking with a lawyer to flesh out your various positions or calculate support prior to negotiating with your spouse. Why? It helps you articulate and understands what you really want before engaging in potentially emotional conversations. Next, consider whether you have all of the information you need to move forward. If something is missing, ask your spouse to disclose informally. If that doesn’t work, consider a more formal process to obtain the information you need (we can help!)
After you feel you know where you stand, you and your spouse need to decide whether to negotiate, mediate, or litigate. Negotiation can be by email, in person, or with a consulting attorney. Consult our resource library to help you strategize your position and negotiate with your spouse. Mediation usually occurs with an experienced, neutral family law mediator who can guide you through the process and help you and your spouse come to an agreement on all the substantive issues (think: kids, support, property, and debt). Litigation (settling your dispute in a court of law) is your last resort—it’s the path to take if the two of you just can’t come to an agreement that feels fair and reasonable.
Alert: Your divorce judgment is a big deal. If there is one part of your divorce to focus on, this is it. No part of your divorce will matter more. Having the best of intentions without educating yourself on your rights is doing yourself a huge disservice. The terms in your divorce judgment can have a profound impact on your future, and if you are anything like us—you want to move past this point in your life with a fresh, strong start and transition to a new, healthier, mindful space.
Once you’ve reached an agreement with your ex, you will need to complete and submit your divorce judgment (or marital settlement agreement), which is usually made up of several documents. It’s a really good idea to have us review your judgment before you submit to ensure that it says exactly what you want it to say. You can also ask any remaining questions before you finalize your divorce.
Your divorce will be complete after your judgment is filed—but we’d recommend you take care of a few remaining items to ensure that you and your family are protected financially.
- If you would like to legally change your last name to your maiden name, look no further! This resource gives you all the details for getting that accomplished.
- Make sure that the qualified domestic relations order (QDRO) is entered and implemented (if there is a provision in your judgment that provides retirement account(s) will be divided by QDRO). Look to our resources What Is a QRDO? and Understanding QDROs for more details.
- Change your beneficiaries (life, health, pay on death accounts, etc.) assuming it doesn’t conflict with your divorce judgment.
- Change title and mortgage information (may need to refinance) of your residence to reflect the name of the spouse who the asset was assigned to. If you are “deferring sale” (holding off on selling or transferring the home until a certain date), you should consider severing joint tenancy or changing title to reflect tenants-in-common so that you each hold a 50% interest in the home.
- Update your will or other estate planning documents, including power of attorney and/or advanced health care directive.
- Notify your auto insurer of any changes in automobile drivers, ownership, and addresses.
- Remove your name from any debts or loans that are no longer your responsibility (to the extent possible).
- If you change jobs, notify your new employer of any court ordered support you currently pay through automatic withholding (wage garnishment).
- Celebrate how far you have come! Divorce is a marathon—not a sprint. You’ve worked hard to get to this point, and we wish you the best in your next chapter.