A General Summary of California Divorce Procedure
Even an uncontested divorce can be tricky to finalize. In California, if you and your spouse agree on all issues (child custody, child support, spousal support, property and debt division, and lawyer fees), you can proceed by a process called "default." This allows you to finalize your divorce without the other party filing all of the mandatory forms and (usually) without appearing in court.
Steps to take for California divorce
Filing and serving
One spouse files a Petition for Dissolution of Marriage and Summons, and a third party personally serves the other spouse. The friend, family member, or process server who serves the petition then files a Proof of Personal Service. After 31 days pass, the petitioning spouse may file a Request to Enter Default, Income and Expense Declaration, Property Declaration, Declaration for Default, Judgment, and Notice of Entry of Judgment.
Additional divorce forms are needed if kids are involved.
If you have children, you also need a Child Custody and Visitation Order Attachment, Child Support Information and Order Attachment, Child Support Case Registry Form, and a Notice of Rights and Responsibilities. The forms and procedure for this type of divorce action can be found here.
A note about child support rules
Let's say you and your spouse agree to a child support amount that feels fair to both of you. Even so, you must still calculate child support based on California guidelines. If the amount differs from the amount you agreed upon, you must explain how your agreed-upon amount serves the best interests of the kids.
Writing your agreement
Assuming you have a full agreement, you and your spouse may work together to write that agreement and incorporate it into a Judgment for Dissolution of Marriage. You probably won't have to appear in court if neither spouse receives public assistance, neither wants child or spousal support, and neither seeks an annulment.
Fast-forward to six months after you serve your spouse with the petition. On the day your judge signs your judgment and files it with the court, your divorce will likely be final.
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Other important information
You need approval in your county
Judgments for Dissolution of Marriage can be tricky to get approved by the court in your county. If you are struggling to get the court to process your judgment, consider spending an hour or two with a lawyer. They can point you toward any changes needed to complete your divorce.
The process may take longer if the two of you can't agree
What happens when a petition and response have been filed, but you can't come to a full agreement, and your case feels like it is lost in the system? In this situation, the process usually starts this way: one spouse files a Request for Status Conference or Request for Case Resolution Conference. Some counties require you to use local forms. In Alameda County, for example, you can get your local form here.
How a status conference works
A status conference will be scheduled. At that time, the judge will inquire about outstanding issues. The judge may then order you to return for a "settlement conference" to discuss any remaining issues. The goal here is to help you resolve your differences before setting a trial. Preparation for a settlement conference is super important. It would be a good time for you to meet with a lawyer to help you prepare.
Other judges may set the matter for a trial and have all contested matters decided at that time. Or, they may require you first to complete pretrial matters, like service of mandatory financial disclosures.
Once the two of you resolve your issues amicably – or a judge resolves them for you – a judgment must be prepared before the divorce action is considered final.
Getting professional help with your divorce
Hiring a lawyer
No hard and fast rules exist regarding when you can or should hire a lawyer to help you with your divorce. If your separation issues are fairly minor, it might work for you to complete as much of the paperwork on your own as you can. Of course, it would be most prudent to have a lawyer on hand from the start of your divorce action (or even a bit ahead of filing) to make sure your rights are protected and you are not prejudicing your case in any serious way.
Hiring a legal coach
Many litigants find that all they need is a little bit of help along the way. To learn if a legal coach might be right for you, take a look at an article we wrote about the role a coach plays in helping you complete your divorce and move on.