Petitioner's Guide to Divorce in California

In California, the person who starts the divorce process is the petitioner. If you are the petitioner, you are the person who files the first documents with the courts, makes the first requests, and triggers everything that comes next.

Here's what you need to know to get the process started.

Prepare to file for divorce 

A divorce is a court proceeding involving plenty of paperwork, processes, and rules. Before you get started, take time to prepare yourself mentally and logistically for what comes next.

These steps will help.

Step 1: Consider all of your options

Filing for divorce is a big step, and once you submit the paperwork, it's hard to go backward. Have you exhausted all of your options before you file? Could another attempt at counseling make a difference? 

Step 2: Assess your marital health

You can surprise your spouse with paperwork. You're not legally obligated to disclose your intentions before you file for divorce. But telling your spouse that you're planning to file could help you move through this process smoothly. It depends on your personal situation.

Step 3: Ensure you meet residency requirements

To file for divorce in California, either you or your spouse need to have lived in the state for the past six months. You also need to have lived in the county in which you're planning to file for the past three months. 

Step 4: Consider where you will live

If you're still sharing a home with your spouse, you may need to move out or ask your spouse to do so. These delicate conversations can be fraught. Sometimes, involving a third party in the discussion can help to ease the tension. 

Step 5: Find your paperwork

You will need documents related to the following:

  • Debts 
  • Assets 
  • Income
  • Retirement accounts 

Find them and copy them. If you’re moving out, take them with you. 

Suggested: Mandatory Financial Disclosures in California


How to start the California divorce process

As the petitioner, you will file the first forms that start the divorce process. Follow these steps carefully:

Step 1: Fill out forms

California allows people to download and fill out paperwork without a lawyer. The following three divorce forms are required:

Fill out each form, and when you're done, make two copies of each. 

Watch: California Divorce: Comprehensive overview of the Petition (FL-100)


Step 2: Submit forms to the clerk

Once you've chosen a courthouse in your county, visit it with your original and two copies of the divorce forms. Find the clerk, and pay a fee of $435 to $450 to file those documents.

The clerk will stamp and date each version and give you two full copies back. One is meant for you, and the other is for your spouse. 

Step 3: Serve your papers

Just telling your spouse that you want a divorce isn't enough. You must provide your partner with documents stamped by the courts, and an impartial third party must deliver them.

Ask another person who is 18 or older and unconnected to your case to serve the following papers:

Give your server a Proof of Service of Summons (FL-115). Ask that person to fill out the form when the handoff is complete, and take the completed copy to the court that's handling your divorce. 

Step 4: Share financial information

You must give your partner formal documents that include data about your debts, income, and assets. Even if you've shared checking accounts, credit cards, and more during your marriage, these forms are required.

Fill out the following three forms:

You will need tax returns, income statements, and more to complete these documents, and you must attach copies of that data to your forms.

There are several permissible ways you can serve your spouse divorce papers in California. you can read about the approved methods here.

After your spouse has been served, fill out the Declaration Regarding Service of Declaration of Disclosure (FL-141), bring it to the court that is processing your divorce, and file it with the clerk. 

4 things that could complicate your California divorce 

Any divorce involves complicated steps and strong emotions. But sometimes, breakups are made even more difficult. The following factors could make your divorce more complex: 

1. Shared children 

About half of parents with young children argue about chores or responsibilities often. These conversations can intensify during a divorce. You know you must provide a unified front for your children, though you may have plenty of arguments behind the scenes. 

If you're raising children, your divorce will be slightly more complicated. Parents get divorced, just as others do, but the process can be slightly more difficult. 

2. Multiple homes

In 2002, about 7.3 million people owned second homes. That number has likely risen as mortgage rates fell. Conversations about your family home can be difficult, especially if one person wants to keep the property and can't afford the mortgage. 

The more homes you have, the longer it will take to untangle your estate. Each requires an appraisal, a conversation with a bank, and a negotiation with your partner. 

3. Extensive debts

It's best if people have plenty of income to share between them. But sometimes, people have more loans than they can repay with their income. If your spouse took out loans without your input, these conversations can be even more complicated. 

In California, any debts you incur while you are married should be split equally when you divorce. It can be difficult to accept these conditions when the bills are very high. 

Suggested: California Community Property and Divorce

4. Shared businesses

Many people build businesses together during their marriages. Over time, the value of these organizations can rise. Splitting this asset can be difficult. Some people choose to stay in business together, while others create buyout arrangements. Prepare for many negotiation agreements. 

Suggested: 5 Considerations in Divorce if You Have a Business in California

How to work through a difficult divorce

While California allows for self-serve divorces, you're not required to work through the entire process alone. You could hire a mediator to assist through difficult conversations. 

A mediator is a trained professional who is capable of helping you navigate difficult conversations with your spouse. This person can't propose solutions or advocate for one side over the other, but they can help you find common ground with a solution that works for both parties. 

If you can't get through one talk without fighting, a mediator could be very helpful. 


Start Your Divorce Case. Judicial Branch of California.
File Your Divorce Petition and Summons. Judicial Branch of California. 
Serve Your Divorce Papers. Judicial Branch of California. 
Gather and Share Financial Information. Judicial Branch of California. 
What Couples with Children Argue About Most. (July 2020). Institute for Family Studies. 
How Many Second Homes Are There? (May 2002). Home Accents Today.
Divorce Specialists
After spending years in toxic and broken family law courts, and seeing that no one wins when “lawyer up,” we knew there was an opportunity to do and be better. We created Hello Divorce to the divorce process easier, affordable, and completely online. Our guiding principles are to make sure both spouses feel heard, supported, and set up for success as they move into their next chapter in life.