The answer – as usual – is ‘it depends.’ First, before you can even file the paperwork, you must ensure that at least one of you is a California resident for the last 6 months, and a resident of the county where you file for the last three months. If you want to divorce quickly, do not move before you do it. California is one of the few states with a fairly long waiting period. Your paperwork must be filed and served on the other party for at least six months before the divorce can be finalized. The court expects you and your spouse to use this time to arrive at any property and custody agreements, or at least to make sure you do not have a change of heart. If you and your spouse cannot agree on a custody arrangement, it is required that you attend mediation before the court will conduct a hearing on it. If you and your spouse are ready to be divorced but still have not finalized an agreement on all issues, California has a funny legal device called a ‘bifurcation.’ This means that the court will terminate your marital status at the six-month mark (or whenever you requested it after the initial six-month period), and leave all other issues open for you and the other party to continue negotiating.
The divorce can be finalized before the six-month mark if you and your spouse are reasonable, communicative, and come to an agreement quickly. Another option for an expedient divorce is a summary dissolution. If you and your spouse have been married less than five years, do not have any children together, do not own real estate, and otherwise own small assets and have few debts, you could qualify for this process, which often avoids a hearing. It requires you and your spouse exchanging financial information, coming to an agreement concerning the division of your property and debts, and filing everything (such as the original petition) with the court. You will still have to wait the requisite six months; however, you can file everything in one go and avoid the additional fees and time off work that multiple court appearances entail.
If your divorce involves a lot of real property, complex business transactions, or a heated custody battle, chances are your divorce will take much longer than an uncontested, agreed-upon divorce. Chances are also that your divorce will be much more expensive, with additional filings, lawyer’s fees and having to hire experts. If you and your spouse fail to effectively communicate, the lawyers will need to do it for you, charging you for each phone call and email to the other side. Further, they will likely need to conduct what’s called discovery, which includes depositions and requests for documents and other evidence that could be used to help or defend each party’s case. Compiling, analyzing, copying and sending these documents can be very expensive, and it should be encouraged that each party cooperate with transparency in order to avoid these costly endeavors.
The bottom line is that the divorce can take anywhere from six months to multiple years, depending on how well you and your spouse can get along. If children are involved, a protracted, tense divorce will only harm them and the familial relationship. If only property is involved, the lawyers will often walk away with a huge share of the community estate. Being unreasonable, or acting with a vengeful vendetta undermines the process of divorce. Although the court system is inherently adversarial, parties and their lawyers should aim to cooperate and be as reasonable as possible in order to preserve family harmony and the value of the estate.