California Divorce Guide

California Divorce Guide

Just like every marriage is different, couples seeking a divorce in California will encounter a unique set of circumstances to formally end their relationship. Divorce is not easy, and you will encounter financial, social and emotional challenges along the way, even if you are ready and motivated to go through the process.

To help ease your stress and concerns, you need to arm yourself with good information to help you better understand what you are about to go through. That’s the purpose of this guide which will help you understand many of the common issues that come up about getting a divorce in California.

Because every divorce is unique, it’s impossible to answer every question you might have. You should seek additional information from a variety of places, including attorneys, online resources, from friends and relatives who have gone through a divorce, and others who will be able to help get you through this difficult time.

But to start, here are many of the things that are common in a majority of divorce situations in California.

The differences between divorce, annulment and legal separation

divorce, annulment and legal separation

In California, married couples can end their marriages in three possible ways. Each of these has their own special requirements and rules, and a good basic understanding of these options is a good place for you to start.

Legal Separation. When a marriage is no longer working and one spouse moves out of the home, couples may consider themselves separated. While this is physically the case, they are not legally separated, and there is a big difference between the two.

A legal separation must be granted by the courts, just like a divorce. Custody, asset division, and support issues are worked out. And this eases the bond of marriage without totally severing it. The couple remains married, but in a much more relaxed and distant way.

It should be noted that legal separation does not always lead to divorce. In fact, it may be a much-needed time out that allows two people to try and resolve their issues in a less intense environment.

Stepping away can often times bring added perspective about what a couple will lose in a marriage and possibly give them time to heal from the issues that caused their marriage to come under stress.

There are financial benefits as well, such as being able to keep health insurance, or by continuing to file as a married couple on tax returns. Also, when a couple is legally separated, each person is responsible for their own financial decisions and is not responsible for those that the other person makes.

If a person is not a U.S. citizen, and they get a divorce, they run the risk of deportation. But with a legal separation, a noncitizen can still stay in the country even if they don’t live with their spouse.

Annulment. When a couple is granted an annulment, their marriage is considered null and void. Basically, this means that both people can move forward with their lives as if their marriage never happened.

Some people choose this option for religious reasons. For example, the Roman Catholic Church does not recognize divorces and an annulment is the only officially sanctioned way to end a marriage. In some cases, when a Catholic person gets a divorce, they may be denied certain religious rights, and any future marriages will not be recognized because in the eyes of the church, that person will still be considered to be married.

In California, annulments may be granted for several reasons. Those can include incest, bigamy, being under 18 when the marriage took place, a former spouse resurfaces after missing for more than five years, unsound minds by one or both spouses (either because they are cognitively disabled or were married under the influence of excessive drugs or alcohol), fraud (to obtain a green card, a concealed pregnancy, concealing a serious criminal record, etc.), or being forced or coerced into marriage against a person’s will.

Divorce. Divorce in California is permanent and straightforward in that a couple only need to cite irreconcilable differences to end their marriage.

Assuming all requirements are met, the couple will divide assets, resolve child custody and support issues, and other related concerns, and ultimately have the courts agree to issue a final decree that permanently and legally separates the couple.

What are the grounds for divorce in California?

When it comes to divorce, California is a “no-fault” state.

This means that the person filing for divorce does not need to prove that the other party did anything wrong. They only need to cite “irreconcilable differences” as the grounds without going into any further details.

Irreconcilable differences means that the marriage has broken down and is not able to be repaired or salvaged. This simplifies the process versus those states that have fault-based divorces, where one spouse can claim adultery, cruelty, desertion or other reasons for seeking a divorce.

In a fault state, the reason for the divorce may impact how marital property or alimony issues are handled.

The only other grounds for divorce in California is incurable insanity. This requires proof, including medical or psychiatric testimony that at the time the divorce petition was filed the spouse was insane and will remain incurably insane.

What kind of divorce is right for you?

Options for Getting a Divorce

Deciding which type of divorce is right for you is the single-most important decision you’ll make during the divorce process (other than deciding to get a divorce in the first place).

There are only two ways that you reach a final resolution in California:

  1. You and your spouse agree
  2. A judge decides

The type of divorce sets the frameworks for how you get to a final resolution. The process you and your spouse choose sets the tone and shapes the outcome of your divorce.

It’s incredibly important to remember that there is no “best” option here. Each type of divorce has it’s own benefits and weaknesses, and it’s up to you to decide which kind will best suit your needs.

Here are the types of divorce:

  • Do-It-Yourself Divorce: What I like to call the kitchen table divorce. This one is pretty straight forward. You don’t hire any professionals and attempt to resolve all your differences with your spouse. The biggest downside is you don’t know what you don’t know. I would advise against this approach unless you have no kids and very few financial assets.
  • Online Divorce: A far superior choice to DIY divorce. Navigating the divorce process and legal procedures can be a minefield. A good online divorce platform removes the guesswork. Through guided interviews, you’ll complete the forms while getting educated on the key legal issues in the process. This can be a great option if you have a relatively straightforward situation and you’re on the same page with your spouse.
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  • Litigation: The default option and also the most expensive. If you and your spouse can’t agree on one of the other options, then you’re headed for litigation. Litigation is an attorney-driven process. While the majority of cases settle before going to trial, that doesn’t mean litigation won’t wreak havoc on you and your kids. Sometimes it’s the only viable option, however. If your spouse has a high-conflict personality (narcissist, borderline, etc.) or there is domestic violence, litigation might be your only option. It’s also the right choice if your primary objective is to punish your spouse. As tempting as that might be, I encourage you to think about the big picture.
  • Mediation: With mediation, you and your spouse retain a neutral professional (typically an attorney) to help facilitate agreement. The mediator will help you brainstorm options, understand each other’s perspectives, and make compromises to reach a resolution that you and your spouse can both live with.
  • Collaborative Divorce: Contrary to popular belief, this doesn’t just mean that you and your spouse are going to work out your divorce “collaboratively.” There’s much more to it. Collaborative divorce is a structured process that takes a team approach. Divorce is much more than a legal process. It’s about money, kids, and emotions. That’s what a Collaborative team includes collaborative lawyers, a divorce coach, and a neutral financial specialist. Unlike any other process, everyone commits not to go to court. The idea is that this removes the threat of litigation which fosters creative solutions and interest-based negotiation. It’s far and away the most supportive type of divorce.

Learn More: I’ve really just scratched the surface on the types of divorce. For a deep dive into the pros and cons of these options, be sure to check out our guide on the types of divorce.

The process of filing for divorce

Process of Getting a Divorce

Although there are many different kinds of divorce in California, the basic process of filing for divorce is pretty much the same no matter type of divorce you choose.

Gather important information.

Being organized while pulling together your information is one of the best things you can do to achieve the best possible outcome in your divorce.

By doing so, you can ensure your rights are protected while also saving time, money and anxiety for the next steps in your divorce.

Before you jump in to collecting financial information, take the following steps:

  • Open a new checking and savings account in your name alone.
  • Open a credit card in your name alone.
  • Order a free credit report.
  • Make a list of all the assets and liabilities that you’re aware of. Include any memberships, reward points, and other perks that may be considered as assets.
If you’re in the dark about your finances, that’s okay. You and your spouse will be required to complete financial affidavits as part of the divorce process. The goal at this point is simply to begin identifying the puzzle pieces.

Okay, now it’s time to start gathering your information. Here’s a short-list of what you need:

  • Tax returns (including W-2’s, K-1’s, and 1099’s) for the last 5 years
  • Pay stubs for the last 3 months
  • Bank statements
  • Credit card statements
  • Retirement account statements
  • Pension plan statements
  • Grant notice for stock options, RSUs, etc.
  • Investment account statements
  • Life insurance policies
  • Mortgage statements
  • Real estate appraisals
  • Deeds to real estate
  • Car registration
  • Kelley Blue Book printouts (“private party value”)
  • Car loan statements
  • Social security benefit statement

This is only a partial list. You can check out the complete divorce document checklist here.

Fill out the paperwork.

Once you have your documentation and know what kind of divorce you will go through, you will need to complete the appropriate forms that you will submit to formally start the process.

If you are working with an attorney, they will assist you with all the aspects of this part of the divorce. You can file papers on your own if your situation dictates, but an attorney will minimize any mistakes, and may save you time and money in the long run.

If you decide to move forward with your divorce by completing forms on your own, then do the best you can in filling out the forms. They will be reviewed by court personnel who will also assist you in making sure they are completed the right way.

What forms you need to complete will be determined by the circumstances of your marriage, but at a minimum, you will need to file the following:

  • PetitionMarriage/Domestic Partnership Form # FL-100. Use this form to start a divorce or legal separation. You will be required to list dates, children, property, and debts.
  • Property DeclarationForm #FL160 – Use this form if you need more room on your petition to list your property and debts, and whether you think it is community or family property.
  • SummonsFamily Law Form #FL110. This tells your spouse or domestic partner that a court case has started and what will happen if he or she does not respond within 30 days.
  • Proof of SummonsFamily Law Form #FL115 – Tells the court that you the papers served on your spouse or domestic partner.

If you have children under age 18 with your spouse or domestic partner, you should complete Form #FL105 which tells the judge who the children have been living with and if any custody orders exist that involve this case.

You may also complete Child Custody and Visiting Application Form #FL-311 which is optional but may help you ensure that you do not leave anything out of your request.

File your documents.

Once your forms have been reviewed and approved, you can officially file them with the court.

If you are initiating the action, you will be known as the Petitioner. If you are the one receiving the forms, you will be known as the Respondent. Unless you can get a fee waiver, you should expect to pay several hundred dollars when you file your paperwork.

How to complete proof of service

After you file your paperwork, you must provide your spouse with a copy of the Petition and a Summons to appear in court. Your spouse will have 30 days to respond to the paperwork.

You cannot give the paperwork directly to your spouse. You must have another adult complete this which is known as “proof of service.” Proof of service can be completed by a process server, a county sheriff or a friend or relative who is at least 18 years old.

California law accepts in-person service, or the service can be completed by mail.

If it is done by mail, then a Notice of Acknowledgement and Receipt (Form #FL-117) must be completed. Service by mail is a good option if your spouse is agreeable to the divorce and wants to expedite the process. Your process server will mail the court papers to the spouse’s home address via certified mail.

Your spouse must complete a Response (Form # FL-120) and the Acknowledgement Receipt (Form #FL-117) and file them with the court.

When your process server has completed delivery of the Summons either in person or by mail, they must sign the Proof of Service of Summons (Form #FL-115), which is then filed with the court. You should file the original in person with the family law clerk at the courthouse and ask for a time-stamped copy to show proof of filing.

Filing for a divorce online

Divorce Online

In California, several companies offer online divorce services.

Costs will vary based on what specific services the vendor offers. Some will help fill out and review forms. Others will provide tutorials as well as provide other related services.

The best online divorce service to check out is 3 Step Divorce. It is an incredibly comprehensible platform that will be able to cover ALL of your online divorce needs.

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    • Unlimited access to support agents by phone or email
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Is it possible to file for divorce in California without using a lawyer?

File for Divorce Without an Attorney

You can file for a divorce on your own. This generally works best when you agree on all the issues with your spouse. Both of you can complete paperwork and submit them on your own.

A judge will review your proposed divorce settlement before signing off on the final decree. But if you are in a divorce situation where you and your spouse have disagreements, you might be wise to retain an attorney to help you work through those issues and protect your rights.

How much does divorce cost?

Cost of a Divorce

At a very minimum, you will need to pay $435 as the filing fee for a divorce petition.

When a spouse files a response to that petition, the fee is also $435.

There may be other additional fees as well, depending on where you live. In some instances, fees that you would normally pay can be waived if you are getting public benefits, are a low-income person or don’t have enough income to meet your basic living needs and your court fees. To request a waiver, you will need to complete Form FW-001.

If you need to retain an experienced divorce attorney, expect to pay anywhere from $200 to $600 per hour. You will also need to pay some sort of a retainer up front to start the process. If you decide to use a mediator or an arbitrator, expect your costs to be somewhere between $3,000 and $7,000, and possibly more.

When you are seeking outside help, one of the important issues you need to discuss during the vetting process is what all anticipated costs will be. You should be given an itemized list that will help you start to figure out costs of the actual divorce process.

How long does it take to get a divorce in California?

How Long Does a Divorce Take

To file for a divorce in California, you or your spouse must have lived in the state for at least the last six months and for at least the last three months in the county where you plan to file for divorce. If you or your spouse have lived in California for at least six months, but in different counties for at least three months, then you can file for divorce in either county.

If you don’t meet residency requirements, then you can file for a legal separation and then file an Amended Petition after enough time has passed to meet the divorce residency requirements for California.

California has a mandatory six month waiting period, so in the best-case scenario, that’s what you can expect.

However, most couples experience delays to one degree or another, and each delay can push the time frame back by weeks or even months. The biggest factor in determining how long your divorce will take is according to the type of divorce you choose.

Uncontested divorces can be finalized in as little as six months, but contested divorces may go one to two years or more.

The other factor that impacts length is how complex your divorce is. For example, if you have children under 18, then you’ll need to work out visitation, custody and support issues. And if you have a large amount of assets, you’ll take more time to figure out a fair and equitable solution.

In cases like this, it is sometimes best to retain the services of a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst to assist you.

Should I work with a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst?

Divorce Financial Analyst

Divorcing spouses in [state] often retain a family law attorney to help them through the process. In simple cases, an attorney may be equipped to handle all aspects of the divorce, including the finances.

But if you have a degree of complexity to your financial situation, you might benefit from working with a divorce financial planning expert.

The best professional to help in these situations is a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst (CDFA), and preferably someone who is also a Certified Financial Planner (CFP).

A CDFA has specialized training in the financial and tax implications of divorce and can work with you to help you understand the pros and cons of your options.

If you have financial concerns or are interested in learning more about what a CDFA does, be sure to check out our guide: What is a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst? (and why you need one).

When bifurcation of marital status makes sense

Bifurcation means that both parties in a divorce can legally declared as a single person while the other issues in their divorce are still being worked out.

It does not affect things such as child custody, visitation, child support, alimony or other contentious issues that may have stalled or become major sticking points that are keeping the divorce from being finalized.

The spouse requesting the bifurcation must ask the court for a separate trial that will deal only with the issue of marital status. A judge will not grant a bifurcation trial if the minimum waiting time for divorce in California—six months—has not passed since initial divorce papers were served.

Judges will also demand a strong reason why a spouse is requesting bifurcation. These may include issues such as wanting to file tax returns as “Single” or “Head of Household” or if you want to marry another person.

If you are granted a bifurcation, and you took the last name of your spouse, you can legally restore your name to your maiden name. Another thing to be aware of is that if a spouse maintains health insurance for the other, then he or she must continue to provide coverage, when possible.

Can I cancel, refuse, contest, stop or reverse a divorce in California?

If you are the person who filed a petition for divorce in California, you can file a Request for Dismissal, as long as your divorce or separation is not final. To do this, you will need to file Form CIV-110. If you later change your mind and decide you do want to go forward with the divorce, you will need to start the process all over again.

If you are not the person who filed the petition, you cannot stop the divorce process on your own. As long as one side wants to get a divorce in California, the other person cannot stop the process by refusing to participate.

What is a divorce decree?

Divorce Decree

A divorce decree is the court’s final order that terminates a marriage.

It provides a summary of the rights and responsibilities of each party, including financial responsibilities and a division of assets. It also covers child custody, visitation, alimony, child support and other similar issues.

Once the divorce decree is issued, parties are legally free to marry another person. The divorce decree is a legally binding document, and if either party does not meet the requirements and obligations set forth in the decree, the other party can take legal action to correct any deficiencies.

What is proof of divorce?

After a final divorce decree is granted, the State of California will issue a Divorce Certificate. The certificate shows minimal information, such as the names of both spouses and the date and place a divorce was granted, but typically no other information.

Rather than having to produce the lengthier divorce decree, a divorce certificate can provide proof of divorce for many legal purposes. It can be used when a person wants to change the name on any state issued documents, or as proof that the person legally has the right to get married again.

Changing Your Name

You will be presented either an option to restore your former name or request a court order for changing names when preparing your divorce forms.

The name change will be granted as part of your divorce. You can choose to receive a separate court order to make your name change official, or you can have your name change recorded on the final divorce decree. Both of these documents are acceptable for all US agencies and organizations as evidence of your name change.

Just having a court order does not mean your name change has taken effect. You will need to contact all of your organizations to request your records are updated.

It’s best to begin by updating your name with the Social Security Administration. Once complete, you can go on to change names everywhere else.

It takes a long time to reach out to each company and figure out what to send where, so we recommend using an Easy Name Change kit to cut out the 10+ hours of research and paperwork that follows.

Read: 5 Things I Wish I Knew Before Changing my Last Name

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These are the tools and resources we’re excited to share with you because we know they can help you have a better divorce:

  • Online divorce
  • QDRO preparation to divide retirement plans and pensions
  • Masterclass on ninja tricks to negotiating with a narcissist
  • Co-parenting apps
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  • Best place to sell your engagement ring
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You can check them out here >>

Looking for more great tips to help you get through divorce in California? Here are a few of our favorite guides and resources:

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