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The Divorce Process in California: A Step-by-Step Guide

Embarking on the journey of divorce in California can be daunting, filled with uncertainties and a multitude of questions. One area that most, if not all divorcing individuals ask about is the divorce process. Divorcing couples are often concerned about how long the process will take, what steps to take, and when it is necessary to consult a divorce attorney. 

At Anthoor Law Group, we understand these concerns and are here to provide the legal guidance you need. While the divorce process can vary greatly from one divorce to another, there are general steps that you can expect and should prepare for.

Step 1: Making the Decision and Meeting Requirements

The first step involves deciding to divorce. In California, either spouse can file for divorce, and you don't need the consent of your partner to proceed. However, you must meet the state's residency requirements, which typically involve living in California for at least six months and in the county where you plan to file for three months.

If the residency rule isn't fulfilled yet, the spouse starting the divorce (the petitioner) has two choices:

  • They can wait until the residency criteria are met.
  • They can file for legal separation, where only one spouse needs to live in California, and there's no specific time demand.

Legal separation is similar to the divorce process but doesn't legally end the marriage. Some couples who don’t meet these California residency rules choose legal separation first. Later, when they meet the residency criteria, they modify their request to pursue a complete divorce.

Additional First Step: Protect Yourself, Your Children, and Your Property

If you think that your spouse could turn violent, abduct the children, or access financial resources improperly, it's crucial to safeguard yourself. This may include obtaining a court order against domestic violence, informing childcare providers or schools about custody instructions, or obtaining a passport for your child to prevent their relocation outside of the country.

You can also seek a court order to stop asset disposal or secure assets independently, just ensure proper documentation to avoid any claims of unlawful action.

Step 2: Filing the Petition and Serving the Spouse

Once you meet the requirements, the next step is filing a divorce petition. When filing for the divorce petition, it is vital to reach out to a California family lawyer for assistance with the necessary paperwork. A family law attorney will ensure you fill out the correct boxes and employ the right language when distinguishing between community and separate property. 

When filing a divorce petition, you're required to submit Form FL-100, Petition for Dissolution, which is the fundamental request for divorce, and Form FL-110, Summons, to your local court. The Summons informs the second spouse (the “respondent”) about the filed divorce suit, providing instructions on how and when to respond, along with any restraining orders during the case. If you have children with your spouse, you'll also need Form FL-105: Declaration under the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA), which seeks more details about your children.

A filing fee must be paid to the clerk of court, which, in most California counties, is $435. The petition is then served to your spouse, who has 30 days to respond. If your spouse does not respond within the allotted time, the court may issue a default judgment.

How Are the Divorce Summons and Petitions Served?

The respondent spouse receives copies of all documents already submitted to the court and a blank Form FL-120: Response – Marriage/Domestic Partnership.

To prevent conflicts of interest, the petitioner cannot personally deliver the papers. Anyone competent and at least 18 years old can act as a process server. To avoid the awkwardness of being served, the respondent may sign a Notice and Acknowledgment of Receipt, acknowledging receipt of the Petition documents.

Once the respondent is served, the process server must file a completed Form FL-115: Proof of Service of Summons with the court. The date of completion by the process server marks the official start date of the divorce case.

Step 3: The Waiting Period

In California, there's a mandatory waiting period of six months after the respondent gets the divorce papers before the divorce can be officially done. This waiting period is designed to give both people time to think and make sure they really want to go through with the divorce. If the person who started the divorce changes their mind at any point before the divorce is finished, they can ask the court to stop the process. However, the respondent doesn't have the power to stop it.

But, in reality, getting a divorce often takes longer than just those six months. On average, it takes about 15 to 18 months. This longer time isn't just because of court delays; it's mainly because the spouses need time to work out agreements between themselves.

Step 4: Coming to an Agreement

While waiting for the required waiting period to pass, you and your spouse can work on finalizing the details of your divorce. This is often the most difficult and time-consuming part of the process. The court will provide a judgment outlining the division of assets, custody arrangements, and other terms. There are three ways to get this judgment:

  • If your spouse doesn't respond to your divorce petition, the court may issue a default judgment.
  • If you and your spouse agree on everything through negotiation, you can complete your divorce with a written agreement.
  • If you and your spouse can't agree on the terms, the court will give a judgment after a trial.

In California, there's a strong emphasis on reaching agreements outside of court. This often involves negotiation and mediation, where both parties work with their attorneys to find common ground. The goal is to settle matters like property division, child custody, and support without a judge's intervention.

Step 5: Finalizing the Divorce Judgment

Once agreements are reached, the court reviews the proposed settlement. If approved, a final divorce judgment is issued, officially terminating the marriage.

Divorce Process in California: FAQs

  1. How long does a divorce in California take?

The timeline can vary, but on average, uncontested divorces take about six months. Contested divorces, where disagreements persist, may take longer.

  1. What happens if I do not complete the divorce paperwork correctly?

Errors in paperwork can lead to delays or complications. However, a spouse can rectify these errors by submitting an amended petition or response. The process can be complex, depending on when it occurs. In certain situations, you can make amendments without needing the other spouse's consent and a court order. However, the petitioner is limited to one such amendment, and additional changes necessitate a court order.

It's crucial to ensure all documents are accurately filled out and filed. Consulting with a California divorce attorney can help avoid these pitfalls.

  1. What happens in a default proceeding where the respondent fails to respond?

In a default proceeding, if the respondent fails to respond within the stipulated time frame, the court may proceed with the divorce based on the petitioner's requests. This does not mean, however, that the petitioner will get everything they want. When it comes to child custody, for instance, the court will decide on the child’s best interest, and not necessarily on the parent’s preferences.

At Anthoor Law Group, we recognize that more questions may arise during this challenging time. Our experienced attorneys are here to address your concerns, protect your rights, and guide you through the divorce process. Let us help ease your worries and provide the comprehensive legal support you need. Contact us today for a consultation, and take the first step toward a smoother divorce process in California.

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The information you obtain at this site is not, nor is it intended to be, legal advice. You should consult an attorney for advice regarding your individual situation. Contacting us does not create an attorney-client relationship.

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