Divorce can become emotionally and legally complex in California. It’s difficult enough to decide to separate; it becomes even harder with confusing rules and procedures to finalize the divorce.

As a result, I’ve written this article to give you a straightforward path to successfully finalizing your divorce in California.

Step 1: Get Your Preparations in Order

Before you officially begin the filing process, consider these three issues first:

  • Deciding if divorce is the right decision: A divorce can significantly affect the trajectory of your life and your children’s lives. Make sure that you’ve exhausted all options before proceeding with the finality of divorce.
  • Telling your spouse about the divorce: It isn’t a good idea to surprise your spouse with divorce papers. If possible, informing them about your desire to separate before you file is courteous and considerate and promotes amicability during the negotiations.
  • Telling your children about the divorce: If you have children, they will be affected by the divorce no matter how you go about it. So break the news to them as gently as possible; don’t force them to pick sides, don’t involve them in the conflict, and don’t make them feel like the divorce is their fault. I suggest meeting with a child therapist that specializes in working with children with divorcing parents on the proper ways to have this important, but difficult, conversation.

Once you have addressed the personal concerns, move on to the practical.

  • Make copies of shared documents: Your bank statements, tax returns, insurance policies, mortgage statements, retirement account statements, pay stubs, credit card statements, and even sentimental items like family photos may need copies.
  • Secure your personal documents: Your passport, birth certificate, Social Security Card, and others need to be secured.
  • Change the passwords: Your passwords need to be changed for your phone, computer, email, social media, accounts for cloud storage, and other accounts, especially if you shared them before.
  • Take note of household items: You can do this by taking photos and videos of the rooms in your home.
  • Check your credit: Divorce can have a big financial impact on your life, so you want to be sure that you have the funds you need to last through the divorce and beyond.
  • Consider meeting with a divorce lawyer: An attorney or divorce consultant can help you better understand your legal rights and options, so you can confidently move through the California divorce process.
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Step 2: File the Divorce Papers

To file for a divorce in California, you or your spouse must be a resident of the state and the county you intend to file in. If you’re the one filing the papers, you are the Petitioner, and your spouse is the Respondent. You will need two main forms:

  • FAM 020: In Los Angeles, anyone filing for divorce must fill out and file this form to give the court the basic information involving the case, and letting the Court know that it is the right jurisdiction to file for divorce. Other jurisdictions may have their own case cover sheet that will need to be filed along with the other forms.
  • Summons (FL-110): This is a notice for your spouse that tells them you have filed for divorce. It also sets Automatic Temporary Restraining Orders (ATROs) that prohibit either spouse from making big changes (selling the property, moving minor children out of state, modifying insurance policies, etc.) before the divorce proceedings begin. Your spouse has 30 calendar days to file a response.
  • Petition (FL-100): This request for divorce supplies the necessary information for a judge to grant a divorce. It includes information on your legal relationship, residency, statistical facts (date of marriage and separation), minor children, and requests (regarding child custody and support, spousal support, property, debt division, and attorney fees).

If you have children under 18, you need a Declaration Under Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA) (FL-105). This form allows the judge to ensure that your children are California residents and determine if there are any existing custody and visitation orders from other cases.

To submit the papers, you’ll need to visit your local courthouse’s family law clerk’s office, or use an e-filing service like GreenFiling. Be sure to look up the courthouse’s operating hours beforehand if you plan on going in person. If you can’t afford the mandatory filing fees (typically around $435 to $450), you can apply to have them waived.

Step 3: Serve the Divorce Papers

“Serving” the divorce papers simply means giving your spouse copies of the documents you filed. This notifies them that you have opened a case and that they must follow the ATROs ordered by the court.

You can consider serving the divorce papers as the starting point for the California divorce process. The minimum waiting period (six months and a day) doesn’t start until the papers have been served.

It’s best to serve the papers as soon as you file them. You must include copies of your Petition, Summons, and UCCJEA (if applicable).

Take note that you aren’t allowed to serve the papers yourself — you can ask friends, relatives (ideally not your children), or acquaintances to help, as long as they’re over 18 years old and not involved with the case. If you don’t want to involve people you know or want to ensure that the papers are served properly, you can enlist the help of a professional process server or a county sheriff or marshal.

On the other hand, if you and your spouse are working amicably through the divorce process, the person being served can also sign a Notice of Acknowledgment & Receipt stating that they have received the Petition. This form would need to be filed once it is signed.

Step 4: Respond to the Divorce Papers

If you’re the one being served papers, you must review them meticulously — especially the ATROs that dictate what you aren’t allowed to do. The moment you receive the papers, you’re subject to these ATROs, and you can’t claim ignorance when you violate them.

You have 30 calendar days to file a response to the papers using the form:

  • Response (FL-120): This is a formal response to your spouse’s request for divorce, allowing you to provide your side of the story. It’s structured similarly to the Petition, so reviewing the papers you’ve been served may be helpful. Ensure that you complete the form based on your understanding of the facts. If you disagree with what your spouse wrote, you can use your Response to show it.

If you have minor children, you must also complete a Declaration Under Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA) (FL-105) for similar purposes.

If you don’t file your response with the court and serve a copy to your spouse within 30 days, the divorce can move forward without your involvement, which could cause prejudice against you. You need to respond even if you don’t agree with the divorce, as California allows unilateral divorce — no consent or agreement is required. Filing and serving can be accomplished similarly to Step 2 above.

Step 5: File Temporary Orders

Temporary orders are requests you can make during the California divorce process, as the minimum processing time of six months and a day can be difficult to navigate without clear rules in place. You can request temporary orders regarding:

  • Spousal support
  • Child support
  • Child custody and visitation
  • Use of property and assets
  • Attorney fees
  • And others

Both the Petitioner and Respondent can request temporary orders at any point during the proceedings. These orders will last until they’re superseded by other orders, like the final judgment on your divorce. Temporary orders can be an agreement between you and your spouse or issued by a judge. It generally takes around 3 to 4 months for a judge to hear your request for temporary orders, so plan accordingly. You’ll need the following form (as well as other forms dictated by the FL-300):

  • Request for Order (FL-300): This details common divorce topics and provides a blank space for other issues that don’t fit into the common categories. Once you file, you’ll be given a date and time for the hearing, where the judge decides what orders to grant.

Step 6: File Your Financial Disclosure

Financial disclosure documents assets, income, expenses, and debts — both as a married couple and as individuals — must be exchanged by both parties prior to moving forward with the divorce and coming to any agreement. Because the California divorce process involves dividing your property, getting a clear view of what you have is important and is required by the law.

You will need four forms:

It can be difficult to complete financial disclosure, as they require a lot of extra documentation. You may need to provide additional documents like:

  • Bank statements
  • Credit card statements
  • Life insurance policies
  • Retirement statements
  • Federal and state income tax returns
  • Paycheck stubs
  • Mortgage statements
  • Real property deeds
  • Pink slips to vehicles

You’ll need to serve your spouse a copy of all your documents. However, only the FL-141  needs to be filed with the court. You must file your financial disclosure 60 days after filing the initial papers (the Petitioner files within 60 days of the Petition, the Respondent files within 60 days of the Response) and no later than 45 days before trial.

Step 7: Participate in the Discovery Process

Discovery is a legal process where you’re allowed to obtain information from your spouse to help build your side of the case. During the California divorce process, discovery is permitted up to 60 days before trial. The information you can request includes, but isn’t limited to:

  • Copies of documents: Documents like bank records, tax returns, medical records, etc., that are relevant to the case. You can also use a subpoena to request documents from a third party, such as your spouse’s employer.
  • Requests for admissions: A request to confirm or deny the truth of a statement under oath. These are particularly helpful when combined with Interrogatories.
  • Interrogatories: Written questions that must be answered under oath. Form Interrogatories (filed with FL-145) are a checklist of common divorce questions, while Special Interrogatories can be tailored specifically to your situation.
  • Depositions: An oral testimony given out of court and under oath. The witness being deposed will answer a series of questions, and their answers are recorded in a written transcript.

Discovery is an expensive, time-consuming process, but it clears up the facts of the case. You typically have 30 days to respond after being served with discovery.

Step 8: Settle the Case

Most divorces typically end at this stage through mediation, as going to trial can be expensive. A settlement is an agreement between you and your spouse and involves a full resolution of all your divorce issues (child custody, property division, marital status, etc.). While you and your spouse may not be able to agree on all of your issues, settling allows you to be in full control of your divorce.

There is no strict timeline for settling your case. Instead, you can begin negotiations as soon as you feel you have the necessary information, whether you choose to during financial disclosure or discovery.

The final judgment of your case will reflect the terms of your agreement. Different counties have different requirements for a divorce judgment, but generally, you’ll need Form FL-180. You can also use the FL-182 Judgment Checklist to make sure you have completed all the necessary forms to get your judgment entered by the court.

Step 9: Go to Trial (If Necessary)

Sometimes, you and your spouse may be unable to resolve your issues through a settlement. If that happens, your case will go to trial. A trial is typically only set if all other settlement options have failed. Trials can be requested by either spouse or set by the judge.

If you have to go to trial, the best way to protect your interests would be to hire a divorce attorney. They can help you by preparing, exchanging, submitting, or filing the required documents, such as the summary of the evidence you’ll present at the trial, the evidence you’ll be presenting, the list of witnesses you’ll call on, and the roadmap of your case. They can also represent and defend you in court.

Next Steps

Your divorce is final after you receive a Notice of Entry of Judgment from the court, but keep in mind that divorce doesn’t always end there. Enforcement of divorce rulings, especially for spousal and child support, can become sticking points. If you need help working through the California divorce process or post-judgment matters, feel free to reach out to me with any questions — I’d be happy to help.

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4 responses to “The California Divorce Process in 9 Steps

  1. Great information! Honestly, I have a not-perfect yet beautiful married life, and I just saw this article and was intrigued. I hope divorce won’t happen because I do not want to finally experience that long process to be free of a toxic relationship.

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