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How to File for a Divorce in California

Posted by Lee Zavatsky | Oct 29, 2022

To file for a dissolution of marriage (divorce) in California, there are specific residency requirements and procedures you must follow. For example, there are many forms to fill out and legal steps before the divorce is finalized.

While on the surface, it may seem a daunting task, it's easier than you think if you and your soon-to-be-ex-spouse can remain friendly and cooperative. In other words, you need to understand that the term “divorce,” by its very nature, is a series of compromises.

How to File for a Divorce in California
Filing for divorce requires several forms.

Next, you must become familiar with several divorce-related topics, such as mediation, summary dissolution, community property division, separate property, alimony, and child custody and support.

As noted, in California, the divorce procedure for a married couple is legally called a “dissolution of marriage,” which will end a marital relationship and divide assets and debts.

Suppose the couple is married for a significant time, and one spouse can't financially support themselves. In that case, you will typically have to deal with spousal support issues, called “alimony.”

Further, when children are involved in the marriage, you will have to deal with the critical issues of child custody, visitation, and support. In most divorces, what's in the best interest of their children is the top priority.

To file for dissolution of marriage in California, you must have been a resident for at least six months and a county resident for at least three months, as described under Family Code 2320. Our California family law attorneys will review this process more closely below.

Uncontested vs. Contested Divorce

Once you have decided to divorce, one of the first steps is to determine whether the divorce will be uncontested or contested. An uncontested divorce is a better and much less expensive, and faster option as long as you are your soon-to-be-ex-spouse can reach a mutual agreement on the related issues.

This means that you and your spouse will need to reach a marital settlement agreement that covers all of the legal issues for ending the marriage, such as:

  • Child custody, support, and visitation;
  • Whether a spouse will pay alimony;
  • How to divide property, assets, and debts;

A “do-it-yourself” uncontested divorce is possible and the least expensive, but in reality, most divorcing couples are not familiar with all the family laws and procedures. They should retain a lawyer for the best possible outcome. Further, many divorces have complicated issues and will be contested.

What is a Summary Dissolution?

California has a particular procedure for getting an uncontested divorce called a "summary dissolution," but you must first qualify for a list of requirements that include:

  • Have not been married longer than five years;
  • Have no children, and wife is not pregnant;
  • Marital debts don't exceed $4,000 (car loan excluded):
  • Community and separate property value is less than $25,000;
  • Neither spouse has an interest in real property;
  • There is an executed property settlement agreement;
  • Spousal support and right to appeal have been waived;
  • Both spouses have read the summary dissolution brochure.

Whether you are filing for a summary dissolution or a formal dissolution of marriage, you start the divorce by filing a Petition for Dissolution of Marriage in the court where you live.  

You will most likely have to attend court hearings unless you want your divorce lawyer to appear on your behalf. Typically, the family court judge will have questions that need to be answered before they enter a Judgment of Dissolution of Marriage. 

What Are the Primary Issues in a Divorce? 

California is a no-fault divorce state, meaning you don't need to list why you are seeking to sever the marital relationship.

What Are the Primary Issues in a Divorce? 
Child custody issues are normally the top priority.

The divorce petition will state, “The parties have irreconcilable differences which have caused the irremediable breakdown of the marriage.”

If you have minor children, then custody and support must be determined. “Custody” has two categories: legal custody and physical custody.

Legal custody is the right to make significant decisions for the child. Physical custody is where the child lives.

One parent is usually awarded primary custody, while the other has visitation rights. Family courts prefer joint custody as they want both parents to remain involved in the child's life, including regular contact.

Parents must decide how the time is divided and who will make the significant decisions. Under California's child custody laws, if parents are unable to reach a mutual agreement, then they are forcing a judge to determine what's in the child's best interest based on the following factors:

  • Amount of contact with both parents,
  • Health and safety of the child;
  • Financial welfare of the child;
  • Any history of domestic violence;
  • Any history of alcohol or drug abuse

Further, a child has to be supported financially. This comes in the form of one parent paying child support to the other based on a parent's income which determines the amount to pay. Judges follow California's child support guidelines which include a formula to determine the amount of support.

Other primary issues that need to be decided in a divorce include spousal support (alimony) and the division of property and assets. Any property acquired during the marriage will be considered community property to be divided equally.

What Are the Steps in Filing Divorce Paperwork?

To start the California divorce filing process, you must fill out some standard forms, which are located on the court website.

All the California family courts use the same forms. If you are the spouse filing for a divorce, you are called the "petitioner" and will need to complete some applicable forms, such as the following:

  • Petition Form FL-100;
  • Summons Form FL-110;
  • Property declaration Form FL-160;
  • Declaration under the uniform child custody jurisdiction and enforcement act Form FL-105/GC-120;
  • Child custody and visitation application attachment Form FL-311;
  • Declaration of disclosure Form FL-140;
  • Income and expense declaration Form FL-150;
  • Simplified financial statement Form FL-155;
  • Schedule of assets and debts Form FL-142;

Depending on where you are living, there could be some other forms. California provides some self-help centers. 

Further, Los Angeles County has a helpful divorce and legal separation website to help you navigate the process.

When completing these forms, it's essential to be accurate, or you will risk rejection by the family court. Some forms could require being notarized.  This is one of the main reasons to retain a divorce lawyer.

You will be required to pay a filing fee with the initial paperwork. The fee for a California dissolution petition is currently $435. If you are financially unable to pay this fee, you can file a Request to Waive Court Fees Form FW-001. The court clerk will stamp your documents and give you copies.

What About Serving My Spouse with the Divorce Papers?

You will have to deliver the divorce petition to your spouse, which is called the “service of process.” This procedure aims to ensure everyone involved is notified of what is happening and will have a chance to argue their side of the story.

If you are the petitioner, you can't just hand your spouse the paperwork. Instead, they are typically delivered by a county sheriff or a process server, but you could let another adult give the papers as long as they are not involved in the divorce case,

If your spouse cooperates, you can use the service by mail and provide a Notice and Acknowledgement of Receipt Form FL-117.  Your spouse must fill it out and return it to the court. Once “service” has been done, you must complete a Proof of Service of Summons Form FL-115 with the court.

How Can You File Response Paperwork?

If you are the spouse receiving the California divorce petition, you are called the “respondent.”  You should file a response and some related forms with the court within 30 days:

  • Response Marriage Form FL-120;
  • Proof of Personal Service Form FL-330; or
  • Proof of Service by Mail Form FL-335;

You can also fill out the declaration under the uniform child custody jurisdiction and enforcement and the optional custody and visitation application if minor children are involved.

How Can You File Divorce Response Paperwork?
Contact us for help with family law issues.

Respondents must also pay the same filing fee, serve their spouse with the response forms, and file proof of service with the family court.

You might be able to obtain a California default divorce with a written agreement, but you'll first need to understand everything involved before you take this route.

A judgment of dissolution of marriage is not finalized until six months after the service of the petition or appearance of your spouse.

Contact our law firm for a free case evaluation if you need legal representation in your divorce.

Furman & Zavatsky are Los Angeles divorce and family law attorneys serving people across California. You can reach us by phone or using the contact form.

About the Author

Lee Zavatsky

Lee Zavatsky is a partner at Furman & Zavatsky, a law firm dedicated to the practice of Family Law. Mr. Zavatsky has been selected as one of the Top 40 Under 40 by The National Trial Lawyers, a professional organization composed of the top trial lawyers from each state or region who are under the...

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