If you're getting divorced in California, it helps to know the steps and rules you'll need to follow—including the state's requirements for divorce (or "dissolution of marriage"), the filing fees and procedures, how long you have to wait before your divorce will be final, and what you can do to save money and speed up the process.
In order to get a divorce in California, you or your spouse must have lived for the past six months in the state and the past three months in the county where the divorce petition was filed.
There's one narrow exception to these residency requirements: when the spouses were married in California but they wouldn't be able to get a divorce where they both currently live—for instance, in a country that doesn't recognize same-sex marriage. (Cal. Fam. Code § 2320 (2022).)
California is a purely "no-fault" divorce state. That means the state doesn't allow you to claim that the legal reason (or "ground") for your divorce was some form of wrongdoing on your spouse's part.
Almost all divorces in California are based on the ground of "irreconcilable differences" that caused an "irremediable breakdown of the marriage." Basically, this means that you and your spouse can't get along, and there's no reasonable chance of fixing your marriage. You may also file for divorce on the ground that your spouse is permanently and legally incapable of making decisions. (Cal. Fam. Code § 2310 (2022).)
Note that because California doesn't allow common law marriage, you generally can't get a divorce unless you got a marriage license, had a ceremony (which California law calls "solemnization"), and followed the other requirements for legal marriage. It doesn't matter how long you've lived together or whether one of you took the other's name. However, you might be able to get a divorce if you moved to California after establishing a valid common law marriage in one of the few states that recognizes these informal marriages. That's because the U.S. Constitution requires states to give "full faith and credit" to the laws in other states—including marriage laws.
There are several basic steps to starting the legal divorce process in California, all of which involve completing and filing forms with the court. You can find the forms and instructions for each step on the California Courts website. Or you can get help with the process by using a service (such as Nolo's Online Divorce) that will complete the right forms for your situation.
You might be able to skip some of these steps if you and your spouse have already agreed about all the issues in your divorce and you file the written agreement with the initial petition (more below on the uncontested divorce process in California).
One spouse (the "petitioner") will file a petition and summons. If the couple has any minor children, the initial paperwork must also include a declaration concerning those children, and it may include an attachment with details about requests for child custody and visitation (parenting time).
If you're the petitioner, you'll need to take the completed forms (plus two copies) for filing to the court in the county where you or your spouse has lived for the past three months. You'll usually need to pay a filing fee (more on that below).
The next step is to "serve" your spouse with copies of the petition and other divorce papers you filed, along with blank forms for your spouse's response and declaration about children. Usually, you'll do this by having a county sheriff or professional process server hand over the documents to your spouse in person. (An adult friend or relative who's not involved in the divorce case could also deliver the documents, but you may not do this yourself.)
If your spouse will agree to accept service by mail, you may instead have another adult (who's not involved in the case) mail the documents, along with two copies of a form that your spouse will sign and return to acknowledge having received the divorce papers.
After you've finished serving your spouse, you'll need to file a "proof of service" form with the court. If you haven't been able to find or serve your spouse (or if your spouse is in the military or incarcerated), ask the court clerk for information about other ways of completing service of process. (Cal. Rules of Court, rules 5.66, 5.68 (2022).)
After receiving service of the divorce petition and other paperwork, the respondent has 30 days to file a response (along with the other required forms), serve those papers on the petitioner, and file proof of that service with the court. (Cal. Fam. Code § 2020 (2022).)
California requires divorcing couples to exchange forms with detailed information about their income, expenses, assets, and debts. Although they don't have to file these financial disclosures with the court, each spouse must file a declaration confirming that the documents were served on the other spouse.
You may include the financial disclosures when you serve the petition or response on your spouse. Otherwise, you must serve them no later than 60 days after that. (Cal. Fam. Code §§ 2103, 2104 (2022).)
When you file a divorce petition or response, the court will normally charge a filing fee (which was $435 as of 2022). But if you can't afford to pay, you may file a request to have the court fees waived.
In what's known as an uncontested divorce, the spouses have agreed on the issues involved in ending their marriage, such as dividing their property, alimony, child custody, and child support (more on those issues below). That way, they can avoid having to go to court to have a judge decide those matters for them.
If you can work out a marital settlement agreement (MSA) before you file for divorce, you may skip some of the steps outlined above—while speeding up the divorce timeline and saving a lot of money on the cost of divorce. There are different ways of filing for an uncontested divorce:
In some cases, couples have disagreements when they start the divorce process but eventually manage to reach a settlement. This might happen early on, after court-ordered mediation of custody disputes (more on that below), or later in the process—often through their lawyers and after the evidence-gathering legal process known as discovery.
If you and your spouse don't reach an agreement on all the important issues in your divorce, a judge will make decisions based on the principles in California law. Judges may also issue (or couples may agree to) temporary orders that apply while the divorce case is proceeding.
California is a community property state. That means both spouses equally own any income or other assets that either of them earns or acquires during the marriage. That community property is then equally divided between them when they get divorced. Both spouses are also jointly responsible for any debts that either one took on during the marriage. (Cal. Fam. Code §§ 760, 910 (2022).)
In California, this community property rule doesn't apply to the spouses' earnings, accumulations (the increase in value of their assets), and debts after they've separated. They don't have to have a legal separation, but California courts have held that the split must be permanent. (Cal. Fam. Code § 771 (2022).)
Learn more about property division in California divorces.
California courts begin with a presumption that it's best for a child to have frequent and continuing contact with both parents after a divorce. (Cal. Fam. Code § 3020 (2022).)
That means judges prefer joint custody arrangements if possible. But they'll always put the child's best interests first when considering the details in the parents' agreement—or when resolving custody disputes at trial. (Learn more about California's child custody laws.)
Like all states, California requires both parents to support their children, even after a divorce. Any agreements or orders for child support must follow California's child support guidelines. Under the guidelines, the amount of support depends primarily on the parents' income and other resources, as well as the amount of time each parent spends with the child. There must be a good reason—based on specific circumstances spelled out in the law—to justify a level of child support that's higher or lower than the guideline amount. (Cal. Fam. Code §§ 4050-4076 (2022).)
Couples may agree that one spouse will pay a certain amount of alimony (known as "spousal support" in California) for a period of time. If one wants alimony but they don't agree on the issue, the judge may order spousal support after taking into account a number of factors, including the goal that spouses who are receiving alimony should be able to support themselves within a reasonable amount of time. (Cal. Fam C § 4320 (2022).)
If you aren't able to reach an agreement with your spouse about any or all of the issues in your divorce, you can turn to a mediator for help. When you reach an agreement through mediation before filing for divorce, you'll be able to take advantage of the savings (in time and money) of an uncontested divorce.
You may also use mediation at any point during the divorce process. You can also mediate disputes with your ex that come up after the divorce is final—such as disagreements over a spouse's request to change custody or the level of alimony or child support. Learn more details of how divorce mediation works in California, including when a judge will require you to mediate certain disputes.
If you and your spouse have a settlement agreement, you'll need to submit some final forms and request a divorce judgment. The court clerk will then pass on the documents to a judge for review. Usually, you won't have to appear in court as long as everything is in order. The judge will simply incorporate the agreement in the divorce judgment and sign it. But if there's a problem, the judge might order you to appear at a hearing—or simply to fix the paperwork if it's a minor mistake.
Either way, you should know that California has a six-month waiting period before any divorce is final. That means that even in uncontested cases, the divorce judgment won't be effective until six months have passed since the petition was served on the respondent, or the respondent made an "appearance" (by filing either a response or the Appearance, Stipulations, and Waivers form with the paperwork for a default divorce with written agreement), whichever of those dates came first. If the judge signs the divorce judgment before the end of the waiting period, the document will state when the divorce will be final. (Fam C § 2339 (2022).)
Of course, your divorce could take longer than six months if you don't reach a settlement agreement before or soon after you file the initial paperwork—much longer if you never reach a complete agreement and have to go to trial. Nolo's survey of divorce in California showed that for people who went to trial to have a judge decide at least one contested issue, it took an average of 16 months to complete their divorce.
Even though same-sex marriage is legal, California continues to allow couples to register as domestic partners and to legally end those partnerships. In some limited circumstances, couples who want to end their partnership may simply file a Notice of Termination of Domestic Partnership with the California Secretary of State. Most of time, however, registered domestic partners must go through the same divorce process as married couples to end their partnership. (Cal. Fam. Code § 299 (2022).)