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3 Steps to Divorce in California

Divorce in California is complicated. There are forms to complete, timelines to meet, and court filings to navigate — all with the emotional weight of dismantling a marriage on your shoulders. But don't worry. At Hello Divorce, we've guided and coached thousands of people through this process. We know divorce inside and out. What's more, we really like helping people (and we're good at it).

The process involves some work, but we've gathered all the information you need for a smart, hassle-free divorce. We're here to support you, guide you, and help you stay the course. Assuming your divorce is amicable (or heading in that direction), you can take care of all three steps without full lawyer representation. Seriously. Although this process is unavoidable if you want to end your marriage, you don't have to struggle alone, nor do you have to spend $26,300 (the average cost of divorce per person in California for disputes involving children).

Step 1: File a petition (and response)

Every divorce (or domestic partnership dissolution) starts with a petition. A petition is a legal document informing the court you'd like to end the marriage and providing legal reasons for the divorce. If you file first, you're called the petitioner. Your spouse is called the respondent. Although it may seem better to file first, there is generally no legal advantage to being the petitioner. Both parties are granted the same rights under the law. You can access the forms you will need through our Divorce Navigator form-generating software.

If your spouse files the petition, you file a form called a response. Once you've been served, you have 30 days to file your response unless (a) you do not object to the requests articulated in your spouse's petition; (b) your spouse has granted you an extension (in writing) to hold off on filing a response while the two of you mediate or negotiate the issues involved in your divorce (assets, debts, kids, financial support, attorney fees, etc.); or (c) you are filing another document to dismiss or move the divorce to another county or state.

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 are considering not filing a response, proceed with caution and only after obtaining the advice of an experienced divorce coordinator.

Why is this such a big deal? If you do not file a response and things turn ugly, your spouse can file a "request for default." A default effectively takes away your leverage and your voice. Your spouse is free to proceed without you. Because most of us have at least some assets, money, personal property, gifts, vehicles, and debts, as well as some exposure to pay financial support or the right to receive it, we usually recommend that you file a response to protect your interests.

The petitioner also files a summons. It contains some basic restraining orders that apply to both parties and some standard limits on what each of you can do with your property, money, and other assets or debts. Among other things, both parties are ordered by the court not to:

  • 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 written consent of the other party or a court order)

Divorces take at least six months and one day after the petition and summons are 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, and exclusive use of home or financial accounts, payments of debts, and other temporary property orders.

Need help strategizing your request for orders? Schedule a legal coaching session. Keep in mind that 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 request for orders. This process is called an "Ex Parte," or a request for an "Order Shortening Time." If you and your spouse can come to an agreement before the actual hearing, you can prepare, sign, and file what's called a "Stipulation and Order" (and avoid several steps).

Use our template, or hire us to prepare and file the docs for you. Also know that you might have to be involved in other court hearings during this first step, depending on how complex or contested your case is.

Step 2: Exchange financial disclosures

In the second step of the divorce process, you are required to exchange court forms called Preliminary (or Final) Declaration of Disclosure that divulge 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 exchange these documents. What personal documents are needed to complete this step? The last two years of filed tax returns, the last two months of employment pay stubs, your most recent checking and savings account statements, and your most recent mortgage statements, to name a few. However, 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.

We have all the resources you need to assemble your financial disclosures. We understand this step is hard, but we're here to help you through it. Check out our membership options. You can also choose to work with an experienced divorce manager who will review the disclosures before you file them or skillfully prepare all of the mandatory financial documents for you.

Step 3: Complete written agreement and judgment forms

There are several ways you and your ex can come to a final agreement. First, start with our divorce worksheet to ensure you know all the issues that need to be resolved before you finalize your divorce. Consider speaking with a legal coach to flesh out your various positions or calculate support prior to negotiating with your spouse. Why? It helps you articulate and understand what you really want before engaging in potentially emotional conversations.

Next, consider whether you have all the information you need to move forward. If something is missing, ask your spouse to disclose it informally. If that doesn't work, consider a more formal process to obtain the information you need. (We can help with that, too.) After you feel you know where you stand, you and your spouse need to decide whether to negotiate, mediate, or litigate.

  • Negotiation: Negotiation can take place via email, in person, or with a consulting attorney. Consult our resource library to strategize your position and negotiate with your spouse.
  • Mediation: Mediation usually occurs 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: Litigation (settling your dispute in a court of law) is your last resort. It's the path to take if the two of you just can't come to an agreement that feels fair and reasonable.

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 of your divorce judgment can have a profound impact on your future, and if you are anything like us, you want to move past this point in your life with a fresh, strong start so you can move to a healthy and mindful new space.

Once you've reached an agreement with your ex, you will need to complete and submit your divorce judgment (or marital settlement agreement). This is usually made up of several documents. It's a good idea to have us review your judgment before you submit it to make sure it says exactly what you want it to say. You can also ask any remaining questions before you finalize your divorce.

Remaining items to consider

Your divorce will be complete after your judgment is filed, but we recommend you take care of a few remaining items to protect yourself and your family financially.

Name change during divorce

If you would like to legally change your last name to your maiden or former name, look no further. This resource gives you all the details for getting that accomplished.

QDRO after divorce

Make sure 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 QRDO? and Understanding QDROs for details.

Beneficiaries after divorce

Change your beneficiaries (life, health, pay on death accounts, etc.), assuming it doesn't conflict with your divorce judgment.

Title and mortgage after divorce

Change title and mortgage information (may need to refinance) to reflect the name of the spouse to whom the asset was 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.

Will and estate after divorce

Update your will or other estate planning documents, including power of attorney and advanced healthcare directive.

Auto insurance after divorce

Notify your auto insurer of any changes in automobile drivers, ownership, and addresses.

Debts and loans after divorce

Remove your name from debts or loans that are no longer your responsibility (to the extent possible).

Wages after divorce

If you change jobs, notify your new employer of any court-ordered support you currently pay through automatic withholding (wage garnishment).

Celebration

Lastly, we encourage you to celebrate how far you have come!

Divorce is a marathon, not a sprint. You've worked hard to get to this point, and we wish you the best in your next chapter.

Watch our video: How to get divorced in California in 3 easy steps