How to File for Divorce in California

Getting Divorced in the State of California

California is a legal trailblazer on countless issues.  In 1969, the divorced Governor (and future President) Ronald Reagan signed the first law in the country that allowed people get out of an unhappy marriage without having to prove their spouse did something wrong.  Here are the basic steps to getting divorced in California today.

1. Figure out if your divorce will be contested

California’s groundbreaking law allows a person to divorce because he or she has “irreconcilable differences” with his or her spouse.  Unlike most states, California has actually eliminated most of its “fault” grounds for divorce, like abuse or adultery.

California has a somewhat unique process called “summary dissolution” that can help spouses get a quick divorce if their separation is simple.  The couple has to have been married less than five years, have no kids, not own land, and share less than $6,000 in debt or $41,000 in assets.  If you qualify, your divorce can be granted by just filing the correct paperwork. You will not even have to talk to a judge.

2. File a petition

Filing a petition starts the formal court process.  To file for divorce in California either you or your spouse must have lived in the state for six months and the particular county where you are filing for three months.  These residency requirements are important limitations to consider, as moving around can complicate things.  Once the petition is filed, California has a six-month waiting period before a final divorce decree can be issued (in most situations).  This is basically a cooling-off period to make sure a person seeking divorce really wants to permanently end the legal relationship, but that time can also be used to resolve any outstanding issues related to the split.  

File a petition

3. Settle issues related to money and children

A divorce order typically also settles any issues of child custody, child support, property division, and spousal support.  Spousal support is what many states call alimony.  It is where one spouse makes ongoing payments to the other spouse.  It has fallen out of favor in much of the country, but it still happens in California, even if it is relatively rare.  All community (jointly-owned) property is also split up at divorce. For many couples, this is as simple as splitting up the checking account and going their separate ways.  Other couples have complicated assets like a house, a family business, join retirement accounts, or life insurance. Judges are often especially worried about children. They look out for the best interest of the children, while also respecting each parents’ rights to time with the children.  Judges enforce the parents’ responsibilities to support their children.

In the vast majority of cases, these issues will be worked out in a voluntary agreement.  A couple can negotiate directly with each other, or use a third party like a mediator or an arbitrator.  If the couple cannot agree, then a judge will hold a trial-like proceeding to resolve the issues. Each spouse can present evidence and testimony and ask the judge to rule for them on child care and financial issues.

4. Get the divorce finalized

Once a final settlement is reached either voluntarily or through a court proceeding, then the judge will issue a final decree that severs the marriage.  

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