California Divorce Process Step By Step

California Divorce Process Step By Step

March 22, 2024

Divorce Process in California

No couple seeks to end their marriage in divorce. However, it is important to protect yourself if you do get divorced. Seeking the assistance and guidance of a California divorce attorney is a useful first step. An experienced divorce attorney can show you what to expect in a contested or uncontested divorce, and they can walk you through the step-by-step process of getting divorced in California.

Before deciding to get divorced, you may want to consider your options and be certain that a divorce is what you want. A divorce is a decision that has life-altering consequences, be they good or bad. Taking a moment to seriously consider your situation is worthwhile.


Steps to Take Before Beginning the Divorce Process

You should meet with a divorce attorney before filing for divorce to learn about the legal process itself. It’s crucial to understand the process before you put yourself through it. An attorney can inform you of how this all works, what to expect in the divorce process, and how to protect yourself during and after your divorce.

Before you begin the process, make sure you done the following important things:

  • Make copies of your crucial documents: Some people forget to put their financial statements in order before starting the divorce process. It is important to find and make copies of your tax information, income statements, insurance policies, and personal sentimental items like photographs. These things may be necessary for processes like valuing assets and property division.
  • Collect your things: Get your personal items to a safe and secure location. Your Social Security card, your birth certificate, your passport, and any healthcare documents all need to be collected as soon as possible to avoid losing them in the near future.
  • Change your passwords: You should consider changing the passwords to any of your sensitive accounts that your ex-spouse may have access to. This includes banking info, social media accounts, email, car insurance, and your cell phone.
  • Protect your credit: Make sure you know how much outstanding debt you may have. Obtain an updated credit score and consider opening a new, separate bank account for yourself.
  • Inventory: Take a photographic inventory of any household items you own. Record everything with your phone and describe what you are recording.
  • Tell your spouse: This may be the hardest step of all, but you should consider having a frank discussion with your spouse and inform them of your wish to file for divorce. You may not want to blindside them with the news suddenly, and it may be difficult if they hear about it from a curious third party.If you fear a violent response or believe your spouse may do something rash out of spite or anger, consider seeking professional help through a therapist or medical professional.
  • Tell your children: If you and your spouse have children, they need to hear about this from one or both of you. Ensure them that the divorce is in no way their fault and that you are still devoted to being their parent. They may feel a sense of loyalty to one parent, or they may shut down emotionally. It is entirely subjective. It is important to provide consistency and communication to your children, especially during a divorce.

Step 1: Meeting the Residency Requirement

The party filing for divorce must be a resident of the county in which they file for at least three months and a resident of California for at least six months prior to filing for divorce. This is a jurisdictional requirement, called the residency requirement, and the court does not have the discretion to change this requirement. A legal separation does not have the same residency requirement and is often filed when the residency requirements have not been met.

Step 2: File the Petition

The process begins when a Summons and Petition for Dissolution of Marriage is filed in the Superior Court. This Summons and Petition must be personally served by someone over the age of 18 and not a party to the action. I always advise against having any family member or friend serve the Summons and Petition. There are alternate means of service if personal service is impossible, such as service by publication in a newspaper. The date of service is important because it establishes the “jurisdictional date.” The quickest a person can be divorced is 6 months and 1 day from the jurisdictional date or the date of service. This waiting period is also statutory and can not be modified. Despite what you may hear or see advertised as a “quick divorce,” this can not be changed by the court.

We often file an Order to Show Cause at the same time as the Summons and Petition. By filing an Order to Show Cause (OSC) a court date will be set to get temporary orders pending a settlement conference and trial. The OSC can be filed to get child custody and visitation orders, child and spousal support orders, and property control orders. If there is domestic violence, a restraining order should be filed immediately as well. It is important to hire an attorney during the early stages of the divorce because it will dictate how the rest of the case may go. It may difficult to undo the temporary orders once they are in place.

Once your spouse has been served divorce papers, they will have 30 days to complete their own set of divorce papers, which are referred to as “the response.” If the spouse fails to serve you with a response within the given time frame, the court can rule a default judgment against them.

This would make them powerless to decide almost anything in the divorce process, including spousal support, child custody, and division of assets. In this case, the judge would review the terms of divorce you outlined in your divorce papers. If they are determined to be reasonable and fair, the agreement will be approved.

Step 3: Property Valuation

The next step would the characterization and valuation of the property. The general presumption is that any property, whether it is asset and debt, that is acquired during marriage is community property and would be divided equally. If property is acquired prior to marriage or after the date of separation, then it would generally presumed to be separate property. There are many nuances to these general presumptions and you should hire a divorce attorney in order to properly evaluate and protect any of your property rights. As part of the characterization and valuation process, discovery should be conducted to properly evaluate the property issues.

Step 4: Settlement Conference

The next step would be a settlement conference. A settlement conference may conducted with a local experienced attorney or a judge, and they will sit down with the parties and try to reach a negotiated settlement. Some or all of the issues may settle at the settlement conference. Any issues that are not settled would get set for trial. The majority, if not all, family law trials are bench trials and not jury trials. If a person is not satisfied with the trial results, they may be able to appeal the decision in the Court of Appeal.


Q: What Are the Stages of Divorce in California?

A: Divorce in California can be categorized into several stages. The process is much more involved than these stages, but this is a useful place to start:

  • Meet the residency requirement.
  • File the petition.
  • Serve the papers.
  • Receive the response.
  • Reach a deal.

Once you have completed all of these important steps, your divorce will be finalized, and you can begin to move forward with your life.

Q: How Long Does It Take to Finalize a Divorce in California if Both Parties Agree?

A: Even if both parties agree wholeheartedly to an uncontested divorce, the shortest amount of time it will take to finalize the divorce is six months. This is a mandatory waiting period set by California state law. In addition, either you or your spouse must be a resident of California for at least six months and a resident of your filing county for at least three months. If you do not meet these requirements, you will have to wait to go through the divorce process. However, you could file for legal separation in the meantime.

Q: What Is the Five-Year Rule for Divorce in California?

A: If you and your partner have been married for less than five years, then you potentially qualify for a “summary dissolution.” A summary dissolution is a quicker, simpler way to end the marriage. In addition to not having been together for over five years, you must also:

  • Have no children together.
  • Have few marital assets.
  • Not seek spousal support.
  • Agree amicably to split what you do have.
  • Meet the residency requirement.

Q: Can a Divorce Be Completed Without Both Spouses Signing in California?

A: Yes, a divorce can be finalized in California without the signatures of both parties. If one spouse files for divorce and has their spouse served with the papers, the served spouse has 30 days to file a response. If they fail to do so within that time frame, they effectively forfeit their control in how the divorce proceeds. The serving spouse can file for default judgment, and the court may opt to finalize the divorce without arguments from either side.

Contact Edgar & Dow Today

It is important that you have legal assistance throughout the divorce process. If you are a Southern California resident who is considering divorce, please contact us to set an appointment to discuss your legal rights and options.


The information on this website is for general information purposes only. Nothing on this site should be taken as legal advice for any individual case or situation. This information is not intended to create, and receipt or viewing does not constitute, an attorney-client relationship.

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