Things to Do Before You File for Divorce in California

It's easy to think of filing as the first step in a California divorce. In reality, you must complete several steps before heading to the courthouse with your paperwork. The preparation you do now will ensure the courts have everything they need to process your split quickly while protecting you, your assets, and your family.

Here's what you need to do before you file your divorce paperwork: 

1. State your intention to end the marriage

California is a community property state, meaning assets and debts acquired during the marriage should be evenly split in a divorce. For this purpose, your date of separation is the day you said something or did something that proved your intention to end your partnership. 

For example, let's say you moved out of your family home on March 1 and told your spouse you were filing for divorce. Your divorce was finalized six months later, in September. Anything you bought between March and September would be considered solely yours, not part of the community's estate. 

Setting up a new household means spending plenty of money and acquiring new assets. Protect yourself by notifying your spouse of the official end of your partnership, and keep any proof (like rental agreements or email messages) with the date on them. You may need them later as you split your debts and assets. 

2. Determine where your partner lives and works

When you file for divorce, you must provide your partner with official copies of your paperwork through a formal process called serving. Typically, that means asking someone unconnected to your case who is at least 18 years old (like a professional process server) to hand your documents to your partner where they live or work. 

If your partner has moved out of your home, it's important to know where they now live. If you can't find out where they live, you may be able to confirm their work address and the hours when they're typically on-site. 

Typically, this process of serving a spouse is quick and easy. If you share children, you're likely very aware of where your partner is living or working. But the right address is critical to completing your divorce process, so make sure you have all the details right. 


3. Find a process server

You're required to provide your partner with official copies of your divorce papers, and you can't hand-deliver them or mail them. You must use a third party's help. Since the time frame between filing and serving is tight, it's best to schedule help now. 

Your server must meet the following requirements:

  • At least 18 years old 
  • Not part of your case 
  • Willing to file paperwork with the court when the service process is done 

You could ask a friend or family member to help, hire a professional, or ask the county sheriff to assist. 

4. Evaluate your assets

California's community property laws require you to split everything you acquired together during your marriage equally when you divorce. But California's six-month waiting period for divorce means your property could be in limbo while your case moves through the court. 

You may be concerned about the following shared items:

  • Cars: Can you keep one vehicle to get to work and home again? Or will your partner take it and leave you stranded?
  • Homes: Can you remain in the home you shared? Or will your partner change the locks and leave you in the cold?
  • Checking and savings: Can you keep paying bills from shared accounts?

If you're worried about your assets, temporary orders may help. Judges rule on these items, and those decisions stay in place until your divorce is final. 

Suggested: What Are Temporary Orders, and Why Would You Want Them?

5. Assess your debts

Banks and credit unions don't interfere with divorces, but they do expect their payments on time. You can't put your obligations on hold while you wait six months for your final divorce paperwork. 

Gather your statements, and get a clear picture of what you owe. If you're on good terms with your partner, create interim plans to keep the bills paid up. If not, you can file paperwork for emergency financial orders. 

Remember that you can't file these documents until your divorce is in progress. But planning ahead can help you understand if you will need the court's help down the road.

6. Consider your children 

If you share children with your spouse, your divorce plans are complex. You must decide how to split responsibilities both now and in the future. Some people navigate these difficult conversations easily, but others do not. 

Emergency orders can keep your children only with you during the divorce. But you must cite specific grounds for those orders, such as abuse or lying. If you don't have grounds, your request could be denied. 

Start talking with your partner now, so you know if you should file emergency orders when you submit your divorce documents. 

7. Examine your safety

Some divorces stem from physical or verbal abuse, and safety concerns arise during the divorce process. If you're worried about how your partner will treat you as you end your marriage, you can file emergency orders to keep you apart. 

Suggested: What Domestic Abuse Victims Need to Know about Leaving and Divorce

8. Pick a California divorce type

Divorces in California are considered court cases, and if you file the first paperwork, you must cite grounds for your split. 

California's no-fault status means you can cite "irreconcilable differences" as the cause of your split. You don't have to prove that your spouse did anything wrong or made a grave mistake. You can simply cite your desire to end the marriage, and that's enough for the courts to process a traditional divorce. 

If you've been married less than five years, share no children, and owe/own very little, you could file for a summary dissolution instead. This option ends your marriage, but it's a faster and easier process. 

Think about which option applies to you, so you'll be ready to file the right type of paperwork at the courthouse. 

Read: Summary Dissolution in California

9. Check your residency requirements 

To file for divorce in California, you must meet the following requirements:

  • You or your spouse have lived in California for the past six months.
  • You or your spouse have lived in your current California county for the past three months.

If you don't meet these requirements, you can't file for divorce in these areas. 

10. Find your courthouse

Once you've determined the county in which you meet residency requirements, find the courthouse that accepts papers. This facility will be your partner during the divorce process.

While all California courthouses follow similar divorce procedures, local variations exist. To help you plan, consider calling and asking the following questions:

  • How much is my filing fee?
  • Are there local forms required with my divorce paperwork?
  • How long is the typical wait time for an uncontested divorce?

Those answers can help you plan for the steps ahead. If you are unclear on any point, reach out to the courthouse for assistance.


Property and Debts in a Divorce. Judicial Branch of California. 
Serve Your Divorce Papers. Judicial Branch of California. 
Ask for an Emergency (Ex Parte) Order. Judicial Branch of California. 
Divorce in California. Judicial Branch of California. 
Find Out if You Qualify for Summary Dissolution. Judicial Branch of California. 
Divorce in California. Judicial Branch of California. 
File Your Divorce Petition and Summons. Judicial Branch of California.
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.