divorce in California without lawyers

The Essential Guide to Divorce in California (Without Lawyers)

Are you trying to avoid “lawyering up” but don’t know where to start? You’ve come to the right place.

Divorce in California has three main steps (assuming you and your spouse both want to stay out of court). DIYing your divorce does take some work, but we make it as easy on you as possible. And regardless of which service you choose, we are always here to guide you. Ready for Divorce 101? Here we go …

Step 1: The petition

Every divorce (or domestic partnership dissolution) starts with a petition. If you file first, you’re the petitioner. Your spouse is the respondent. There is generally no legal advantage to being the petitioner vs. the respondent.

The forms:

Every time you file a document in person or by mail, you need an original and two copies. Some courts also require a local form. If we are filing and serving (i.e., delivering to your spouse) your divorce petition for you, you can skip this step. We’ve got you covered.

Quick tip: Serving divorce papers to your spouse can get complicated. Learn more here. 

Let’s do this

If you’re a premium member, log in to the Divorce Navigator, or click here to prepare your divorce documents instantly.

Premium members have unlimited access to our Divorce Navigator form-generating software, instructional videos, and DIY templates. Already a member? Log in here.

Schedule a FREE 15-minute strategy session, sign up for a free starter membership, or learn more about our membership options.


Have questions? We’re here for you.

We will prepare, review, and file your divorce documents for you with DIY Pro, Divorce Plus, Divorce with Benefits, or Cooperative Divorce memberships.

The response

If your spouse has filed the petition, you may want to file a response.

Related: I’ve been served with a divorce petition. Now what?

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’re a Hello Divorce premium member, click here to start your response.

Should I file a response?

The forms:

Every time you file a document in person or by mail, you need an original and two copies. Some courts also require a local form. If we are filing and serving (i.e., delivering to your spouse) your divorce petition for you, you can skip this step. We’ve got you covered.

Note

A summons is filed with the petition. It has some basic restraining orders that apply to both parties. Among other things, both parties are ordered by the court not to do the following:

  • 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 the written consent of the other party or court order

Temporary orders (optional)

Divorce completion takes at least six months and one day after the petition is 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
  • Exclusive use of home or financial accounts, payments of debts, other temporary property orders

The (usual) forms:

It usually takes four to eight weeks to obtain a court date. If you have “exigent circumstances” (for example, 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), consider filing an additional document with your RFO. This process is called an “Ex Parte” or a request for an “Order Shortening Time.”

Quick Tip: If you and your spouse can come to an agreement before the hearing, you can prepare, sign, and file a Stipulation and Order (and avoid steps 4 through 6 above). Use our template, or hire us to prepare and file the docs for you.


Court hearings

Depending on how complex or contested your case is, there are other court hearings that might take place in this step. Learn more about these types of court hearings.

Have questions? We’re here for you!

Need help strategizing your request for orders? Schedule a legal coaching session with an experienced divorce lawyer.

Related: Preparing for Online Court, Tips for Writing a Persuasive Argument

Step 2: Financial disclosures

You are required to exchange court forms that disclose 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 must still exchange these documents.

We’ve got loads of resources to help you with this. We recommend that you start with the following two to get a sense of what financial disclosures are and the documents you need to complete them:

All the Info You Need for Your Financial Disclosures

Disclosures (in a Nutshell)

The forms:

The fancy (legal) word for disclosures is “Preliminary (or Final) Declaration of Disclosure,” or PDDs. Disclosures and discovery responses become tools for negotiation and, if necessary, trial.

Quick tip: 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.

DIY the strategic way

If you’re a premium member, start here to prepare your mandatory disclosure documents instantly.

Premium members have unlimited access to our form-generating software. Already a member? Log in here.

Schedule a FREE 15-minute strategy session, sign up for a free starter membership, or learn more about membership options.


We’re here for you

We will prepare, review, and/or file your documents for you with DIY Pro, Divorce Plus, Cooperative Divorce, or Divorce with Benefits.

Or, if you prefer, we’ve got a la carte services.

Step 3: Written agreement and judgment forms

There are different ways the two of you can come to an agreement.

  1. Start with our Settlement Agreement Worksheet to make sure you know all the issues that must 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.
  2. Get more information. Something 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!)
  3. Negotiate, mediate, or litigate. Negotiation can be by email, in person, or with a consulting attorney. Mediation is usually 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 is your last resort. It’s for situations where a couple just can’t come to an agreement that feels fair and reasonable.

Basic forms:

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 profoundly impact your future. If you are anything like us, you want to move past this point in your life with a fresh, strong start in a new, healthier, mindful space.

Resources to support you

Consult our resource library to help strategize your position and negotiate with your spouse.

DIY the strategic way

If you’re a premium member, log in to the Divorce Navigator, or click here to prepare your judgment documents and marital agreement instantly.

Premium members have unlimited access to our Divorce Navigator, form-generating software, instructional videos, and DIY templates. Already a member? Log in here.

Schedule a FREE 15-minute strategy session, sign up for a free starter membership, or learn more about our membership options.


We’re here for you

We will prepare, review, and/or file your documents for you with DIY Pro, Divorce Plus, or Divorce with Benefits.

Submitting your judgment

Have we mentioned that it’s a REALLY good idea to have us review your judgment before you submit?

A few final notes

Your divorce will be complete after your judgment is filed, but there are still a few steps you should take to make sure you and your family are financially protected.

    1. Name change: 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.
    2. Retirement accounts: 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 QDRO and Understanding QDROs for more information.
    3. Beneficiaries: Change your beneficiaries (life, health, pay on death accounts, etc.) assuming it doesn’t conflict with your divorce judgment.
    4. Title and mortgage: Change title and mortgage information (may need to refinance) to reflect the name of the spouse to whom the asset is assigned. If you are “deferring sale” (holding off on selling or transferring the home until a certain date), consider severing joint tenancy or changing the title to reflect tenants-in-common so you each hold a 50% interest in the home.
    5. Will, estate, power of attorney: Update your will or other estate planning documents, including the power of attorney and/or advanced health care directive.
    6. Auto insurance: Notify your auto insurer of any changes in automobile drivers, ownership, and addresses.
    7. Debts and loans: Remove your name from any debts or loans that are no longer your responsibility (to the extent possible).
    8. Employer notification: If you change jobs, notify your new employer of any court-ordered support you currently pay through automatic withholding (wage garnishment).
    9. Celebrate how far you have come! Divorce is a marathon, not a sprint. You’ve worked hard to get here, and we wish you the best in your next chapter.

We get it. Easier said than done.

But assuming your divorce is amicable (or heading in that direction), you can do this without full representation by a lawyer. Just remember, this is a process that you can’t avoid, but that doesn’t mean you must struggle alone or spend $26,200 (the average cost of divorce per person in California).

Take this one step at a time. We’ve guided and coached thousands of people through the process before you. We like helping, and we’re good at it.

We also recommend:

Divorce Flow ChartDivorce Process Flowchart

parents who divorced well

Create a Thoughtful Divorce Co-Parenting Plan

The Ultimate Settlement Agreement Checklist

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