Your Complete Guide to Getting a Divorce in California

What We Cover In This Article

Divorce Laws | Residency Requirements | Grounds for Divorce | Divorce Attorney | Filing for Divorce | Online Divorce | How Long? | Divorce Costs | Custody | Child Support | Alimony | Division of Asset | Common-Law Marriage | Alternatives


No matter what, going through a divorce is difficult, confusing, and emotional.

However, navigating the divorce process in California without a proper understanding of the relevant laws and the options available to you makes an already complex process even more challenging.

That’s why we’ve put together this complete guide to getting a divorce in California.

With the information below, you will understand everything from the different types of divorce to the considerations that courts pay attention to when deciding on custody, child support, and alimony.

Types of Divorce Laws in California

One of the first things to know about divorce law in California is that the state is considered a “no-fault” divorce state.

This means that the person seeking a divorce does NOT need to prove that their spouse or partner acted wrongly in the marriage.

Instead, only one person has to decide it isn’t working anymore and begin the process of getting a divorce.

However, that doesn’t mean that there’s just one way of getting a divorce in California.

You can take three different legal routes to get a divorce.

  1. a contested divorce
  2. an uncontested divorce
  3. a summary dissolution.

Each of these types of divorces has different laws that govern them, unique requirements that make particular couples eligible for one or the another, and additional costs associated with them.

In California, a massive law called the Family Code (Ann. Cal. Fam. Code) covers everything to do with divorce throughout its more than 20,000 articles.

It establishes what happens in all three types of divorce, as well as the custody of children, division of property, and spousal support.

With the family code in mind, it’s important to remember that divorce is not a subjective matter.

The circumstances of your marriage and the state of your relationship with your partner make a considerable difference to the specific laws that will determine the end of your marriage.

That’s not bad because you can have clear expectations about what will happen so long as you understand the relevant laws at play.

In the rest of this section, we’ll go over the three different types of divorce in California in detail.

Contested Divorce

A contested divorce is the most expensive and contentious type in California, almost always involving attorneys for both partners and usually ending with time in court.

Such a divorce is necessary whenever spouses have disagreements about anything involving the terms of the divorce.

Conflicts typically occur regarding dividing property and debts between the two parties, spousal support payments and custody of any children or minors.

For example, if a husband completes and files the ‘Forms to Start a Divorce or Legal Separation,’ the next step is to serve those papers to his spouse.

A contested divorce will take place if the spouse takes issue with one or more aspects of the information on the divorce papers.

For example, debating how much a specific property is worth or whether an account is held jointly or individually.

In cases where spouses or partners disagree about divorce terms, compromise through mediation or working together can sometimes lead to agreement and the avoidance of a contested divorce.

On the other hand, the disagreements about the divorce terms might be very subjective opinions about the ways that terms should be following the divorce.

For example, it’s common for spouses to agree about how much a particular piece of property is worth but disagree about who should own it after the divorce or under what terms it should be divided.

This is when a contested divorce will follow.

In California, once one spouse files their forms with the court and petitions for the marriage to be dissolved, the other spouse has thirty days to file their own set of forms.

These response forms are called the “Forms to Respond to a Divorce or Legal Separation” and the “Forms to Complete Your Preliminary Disclosure.”

These two initial filings lay out the positions of both spouses in terms of how the marriage should be dissolved, what should happen to jointly own property, and how custody of any children should proceed after the separation.

The documents that each spouse submits can form the opening positions of the negotiation to follow.

Before going to court, married couples seeking contested divorces usually try to settle through negotiations led by their respective lawyers.

It’s preferable to find a settlement because it saves everyone involved in the divorce a great deal of the time and expense when have to go to court.

If they can’t settle, both parties will appear in court before a judge.

The court will decide any outstanding issues that the couple has not agreed upon, and both parties must abide by the decision (unless an appeal is made).

Pros and Cons

  • Contested divorces can help a spouse avoid unfair terms that have been proposed in the ‘Forms to Start a Divorce or Legal Separation.’
  • You can fight for what you feel you deserve
  • If you and your spouse can not get along, this will help move through the process with 3rd parties
  • They may be costly due to the necessary involvement of lawyers in the settlement and trial phase.
  • When contested divorces go to court, it’s often challenging to predict what a judge will decide is fair. Given the life-altering stakes of divorces, it can often be a significant risk to go to trial.

Uncontested Divorce

As you can tell from the above section about contested divorces, uncontested divorces occur when both spouses or partners agree on getting a divorce and all the major terms of their divorce.

Getting an uncontested divorce starts the same way as a contested divorce in California, specifically one of the spouses files a petition for divorce with the court.

In almost all cases, both spouses have worked through the forms together and come to an agreement on what the original petition says.

This stage of the process is sometimes referred to as creating a written agreement and is legally known as a stipulated judgment.

The stipulated judgment must include a declaration that both parties agree to end the marriage.

Depending on the circumstances of the marriage, the stipulated judgment may also include:

  • Explanations of how property and debt will be divided
  • Whether one party will pay spousal support to the other, as well as how much and for how long
  • The custody of any children

After the forms have been completed, they need to be notarized before being submitted to the courts.

There are a few ways to go about completing the necessary steps for an uncontested divorce.

Some couples come to an agreement and complete all of the forms on their own before submitting them to the court.

This can be difficult as the documents necessary to complete a divorce are quite complex, and making a mistake can substantially delay getting an uncontested divorce.

As a result, many couples choose to get assistance to complete the necessary forms.

There are two main types of assistance available to spouses seeking an uncontested divorce.

The first is online divorce providers that essentially help you complete your forms using an online form designed for ease of use.

By answering simplified questions online, you can fill out all the necessary forms for an uncontested divorce and receive instructions on how to file them correctly.

Couples can also seek the help of an attorney to complete the forms on their behalf.

Unlike contested divorces, both spouses do not need their lawyers because they have already agreed on the most substantial matters.

The costs of getting a single lawyer to perform the relatively streamlined process of getting an uncontested divorce are far less costly than the multiple lawyers involved in contested divorces.

As a result, you may be able to find a California divorce attorney that will perform this service for a much lower amount of billable hours or even a flat fee divorce.

After the petition is filed and the other spouse responds with an agreement to its terms, the divorce moves forward as an uncontested divorce.

After that, there are a few more final forms to file.

After a six-month waiting period, a judge will review all the submissions that both you and your spouse have made and, if everything is in order, sign the divorce decree.

The judge will also point out any mistakes that have been made in the paperwork, which may delay the divorce if they are serious enough.

FURTHER READING: How To Get a Cheap and Quick Divorce

Uncontested Divorce Requirements in California

There are three main conditions for getting an uncontested divorce in California:

  1. One or both spouses must have been a resident of California for at least six months before filing the divorce forms (as set out in Cal. Fam. Code § 2320).
  2. Both spouses agree to sign all the necessary forms and paperwork. Both spouses must also be capable of making legal decisions when signing these forms.
  3. There are no disagreements about any issues with the divorce, including child support and custody, how they will divide property and debts, and whether either party will pay spousal support.
  • Uncontested divorces are quicker and cheaper than contested divorces.
  • Spouses have reached an agreement on their own and can proceed on better terms than after a contentious divorce.
  • You can avoid taking the divorce to trial
  • Requires the ability to navigate the divorce process
  • If domestic violence is involved, a contested divorce is safer
  • Neither spouse can demand additional spousal support or child support unless the other agrees.
  • Both spouses give up the right to appeal the terms of the divorce in the future.
YouTube video
What We Recommend
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Summary Dissolution

A summary dissolution is a legal option for ending marriages without many of the complexities of a contested or uncontested divorce.

The process is so simple compared to other kinds of divorce because a summary judgment is only available to partners who meet a strict set of criteria.

These requirements ensure that the most complex issues that arise during the breakup of a marriage aren’t an issue.

For instance, you can only get a summary dissolution if you do not have any children whose custody would need to be determined.

Likewise, couples can only have assets and debts below a certain threshold, meaning less complexity when dividing them.

A complete list of these requirements follows this section.

In summary dissolution, couples file a joint petition to end the marriage rather than one spouse filing a petition and the other needing to respond (Cal. Fam. Code § 2401 (a).).

On the joint petition, the two spouses must confirm that they meet the conditions for summary dissolution, provide their mailing addresses and contact information, and state whether they would like to return to the name they had before the marriage.

There are a few other forms that couples need to submit along with the joint petition:

  • A declaration of disclosure that lists all the materials that need to be available to the court
  • A schedule of assets, OR
  • A property declaration
  • Two years worth of tax returns
  • Information relating to any investments or business interests that either spouse owns

After all the relevant information has been filled out, the last thing that needs to be submitted is the settlement agreement.

Both spouses need to write up a treatment of the relevant issues in their separation and stipulate how they will resolve them.

These points include how they will divide jointly held property, as well as any other terms.

California courts have published a sample property settlement that couples can refer to when drafting their own.

After submitting the joint petition, additional documents, and settlement agreement, an official from the court will approve the documents and issue the date of divorce.

All this will happen six months after they filed the summary dissolution.

Summary Dissolution Requirements in California

There are somewhat stricter requirements for those seeking a Summary Dissolution of their marriage, making it unavailable to some couples. They are:

  1. One or both spouses must have been a resident of California for at least six months before filing the divorce forms (as set out in Cal. Fam. Code § 2320).
  2. They must agree that the reason for ending the marriage is “irreconcilable differences.”
  3. You don’t have any children that qualify as minors.
  4. Neither spouse is pregnant.
  5. The union or partnership has lasted less than five years.
  6. Unpaid debts do not exceed $6,000.
  7. Marital assets do not exceed $45,000.
  8. Both spouses have signed a settlement agreement that divides assets and debts.
  9. They have already arranged any transfers of assets or debts.
  10. Neither spouse is demanding alimony (Cal. Fam. Code § 2400).
  11. Both parties have read the ‘Summary Dissolution Information Booklet’ (Cal. Fam. Code § 2406.).

Pros and Cons

  • A summary dissolution is the easiest and quickest way to end a marriage.
  • No attorneys are required.
  • Many couples are not eligible to get a summary dissolution because there are many stringent conditions for who qualifies.
Key Takeaways
California law has three kinds of divorces.
  1. a contested divorce
  2. an uncontested divorce
  3. a summary dissolution
The current working relationship and level of cooperation on the divorce terms determine which type of divorce you should pursue.

Residency Requirements in California

The first step of getting a divorce is checking the jurisdictions in which you can get a divorce.

This part is crucial because each state has its own conditions for determining whether or not someone counts as a resident when getting a divorce.

In California, the requirements for residency are outlined in section 2320 of the California Family Code.

One of the two spouses involved must have lived in California for at least six months for a divorce to be possible in the state.

Furthermore, one of the two spouses needs to have been a county resident where they are filing for divorce for at least three months.

There are a few exceptions to this rule.

One could seek a divorce in California even if neither party is a resident if they entered into the marriage in California.

Same-sex couples that weren’t married in California nor live there can still file for divorce in the state if their states don’t recognize same-sex marriage.

Key Takeaways
Except for a few circumstances, one of the spouses involved in the divorce must have been a resident of California for at least six months and a county resident where the papers will be filed for at least three months.

Grounds for Divorce in California

Under marriage law in California, there are only two grounds for getting a divorce.

  1. Irreconcilable differences
  2. Incurable Insanity

Divorce Based on “Irreconcilable Differences” in California

The first is a “no-fault” divorce that alleges that irreconcilable differences between the two spouses prevent the marriage from continuing.

The no-fault part of the equation means that no proof of the irreconcilable differences needs to be provided.

If California were one of the states that practices “fault-based” divorce, then specific grounds for divorce (such as cruelty, fraud, abandonment, or infidelity) need to be proven by one of the parties for the divorce to be granted.

Also, California doesn’t require that both spouses or partners agree that there are irreconcilable differences.

Only one of the people involved needs to allege that there are such issues in the marriage.

As the Court of California states, “To get a no-fault divorce, 1 spouse or domestic partner has to state that the couple cannot get along.”

Another implication of California being a no-fault divorce state is that the courts won’t consider which party is at fault for the conditions that have led to the failure of the marriage.

This point impacts property or custody disputes.

Where other states might grant the party not at fault for the failure of the marriage advantageous terms in the final settlement, California courts won’t do this.

For instance, if one spouse was unfaithful, other states might see this as a reason to grant spousal support or custody to the partner that wasn’t unfaithful, but this will not happen in California.

Divorce Based on “Incurable Insanity” in California

The second ground for a divorce in California is much less common and set out in section 2310 of the Ann. Cal. Fam. Code.

This ground for divorce relates to the inability of one of the spouses to make decisions for themselves.

It’s referred to as the “incurable insanity” ground for divorce.

Experts say that, compared to divorces based on irreconcilable differences, divorces based on incurable insanity are relatively challenging to get because of the high burdens of proof on the person petitioning for divorce.

Nonetheless, this legal option does exist for a reason.

A spouse suffering from mental illness to the degree that they are incapable of making decisions for themselves can’t complete the necessary actions required for getting a divorce.

For that reason, in divorces based on “incurable insanity,” divorce papers are served to the guardian or conservator of the mentally ill party.

The person designated to be the mentally ill spouse’s guardian will then be responsible for representing their charge’s interests in court.

To get this kind of divorce, the sane spouse petitioning for divorce must produce testimony from a mental health professional (usually a psychiatrist) that certifies their spouse is incapable of making decisions according to the law.

A mental health professional will make this determination when their patient has deficits in their ability to sustain normal:

  • attention and/or alertness
  • processing of information (i.e., problems with memory or communication)
  • processing thoughts (i.e., the patient has hallucinations or delusions)
  • modulation of their moods and feelings

If such issues lead to a legal incapacity to make decisions, then the spouse who wants a divorce will have to use the grounds of permanent insanity.

Key Takeaways
There are two grounds for divorce in California. You can either pursue a no-fault divorce based on irreconcilable differences or seek a divorce based on the incurable insanity of your spouse.

Using a California Divorce Attorney

Whether or not to involve a lawyer in your divorce proceedings can be a complicated decision.

Using a lawyer isn’t always required in an uncontested or even a contested divorce, especially if you and your spouse are on good terms.

But, it can be helpful if you and your spouse share many – or particularly complex – assets like multiple properties or investments.

It’s advantageous to have solid legal representation in contested divorces because you can become engaged in something of a zero-sum game.

When you lose the rights to certain finances or property, it’s because your spouse gains access to them.

We all know that divorces can often become very contentious affairs.

In such situations, you want to be sure that you have legal representation that can protect your assets retain your right to see your children.

That’s why we’ll go over all the considerations that come into play when selecting and hiring a divorce attorney.

What Makes a Good Divorce Attorney

Several qualities make a particular divorce attorney a good fit for you and your specific case.

In the list that follows, some of the entries are matters of course—those qualifications that you would expect any divorce attorney to have—and some are qualities that are the mark of a truly exceptional attorney.

They Are Qualified and Have the Relevant Experience

You don’t want to enter into a contentious divorce with an attorney that doesn’t have the experience necessary to know what actions are best.

Divorces and California divorce law are both very complex, and it takes time for a lawyer to learn how to navigate within them.

Attorneys working at law firms specializing in divorce law will almost always be qualified to take on any task that your case requires.

Because they have experience with any legal curve ball thrown at them.

For example, if you will be going through a divorce with a narcissistic spouse, having an attorney with experience with negotiation tactics that will navigate around falling into common traps narcissists set for their victims.

They Have Communication Skills

First of all, it’s crucial to have a divorce attorney with good communication skills for the sake of your interactions with them.

You want to make sure that there are no communication breakdowns between you and your lawyer while getting a divorce, as these can be disastrous for your future.

Also, keep in mind that your divorce lawyer will be the one interfacing with both your ex’s lawyer and your ex themselves, so their people skills will be critical in that arena as well.

You should have a lawyer who can keep everything as civil as possible throughout the process.

While you might not always be able to maintain your composure and communicate effectively, you should have a lawyer that can.

They Have Good Judgment

When getting a divorce in California, every decision requires sound judgment.

Remember, you’re potentially dealing with legal arguments in court that can go one way or another.

Having a lawyer who can deal with risk and cost-benefit analysis is a necessity in these circumstances.

When there’s a difficult decision to be made about contesting a certain claim your spouse is making or a child custody argument, you need to be sure that the person counseling you is giving you the best possible advice.

They Are Competitive

As much as you want a lawyer that can dispassionately weigh arguments and predict their perception in court, it’s also important to have a lawyer with some edge over them.

Since your lawyer should represent your interests, not those of your spouse, make sure that they are invested in the task and will do everything they need to do.

How to Find a Good Divorce Attorney

The key to finding a good California divorce lawyer is to consider a few options and to do your research.

The truth is that a divorce attorney has a financial incentive to get your business, so they will sell themselves in the best way possible.

However, you should always be skeptical and do your research by gathering information and interviewing a few potential attorneys.

One great way to cut through advertisements and salesmanship is to get recommendations from friends or family.

If you ask people who have been through divorces about who represented them and their experience with those lawyers, you might find a great lawyer or you could avoid a disastrous one who messed up your buddies’ divorce.

Generally, you should interview at least three attorneys before selecting who will represent you is good advice.

You want to hear a range of perspectives about your divorce before choosing the attorney who best represents your thoughts and opinions.

Interview Questions for Divorce Attorneys

There are many questions that you should ask a potential attorney before deciding that they are suitable for you.

Here is a selection of the most important questions that you should ask a potential divorce attorney:

  • In what areas of law do you practice? Do you solely practice divorce law, or do you work in other areas as well?
  • What states and counties are you qualified to practice law in?
  • Do you have any accreditations that point to your competency in divorce law?
  • How much do you charge per hour? How about your staff rates?
  • What’s your retainer?
  • Is mediation a part of your practice in divorce cases?
  • Do you offer consultation services as well as full legal services?
  • Do you think I will end up having to pay (or receive) alimony?
  • How do you see the division of property going?
  • Do you offer a divorce for a flat fee?

Keep in mind that an attorney may not want to offer complete answers to many of these questions at the initial stage of the first meeting.

They will have to look into many details of your financial situation before knowing the answer to these questions.

A good attorney with lots of business might not want to get into those details until they know you will be a client—that kind of exclusivity isn’t a bad thing!

Is the Initial Consultation Free?

In short, whether or not the initial consultation with a lawyer is free depends on the lawyer.

Some lawyers and law firms advertise free consultations as a way of drumming up business.

Generally, these meetings last anywhere from thirty minutes to an hour.

They are primarily an opportunity to meet and get to know the lawyer who will be working on your case.

Remember, not only will you be spending a lot of time with your lawyer during a contested divorce, but you’ll also be sharing intimate details of your life with them.

With that in mind, make sure you feel comfortable with them.

Beyond offering some vague advice about how the case tends to go, few lawyers will give you many specifics about legal strategy or how they would argue your case.

Other law firms refuse to offer free consultations.

There are a few reasons for this stance.

First of all, some lawyers want to avoid using their time on free consultations when there’s no guarantee they will receive your business.

They need to focus their time on revenue generating tasks.

Also, they may hesitate to offer advice because they could be held liable if you are following that advice leads to bad outcomes.

Is the Initial Meeting Confidential?

Yes, the initial meeting with a lawyer is confidential, whether or not you pay for the initial consultation.

A lawyer has a professional obligation to keep the details of your consultation private because the interaction is still one that revolves around the law and legal advice.

Indeed, once you’ve had an initial consultation with an attorney, they won’t be able to represent your spouse even if you haven’t hired them.

This is referred to as being “conflicted out.”

Some people going through divorces use this as a legal strategy, seeing as many top attorneys as possible in an area for initial consultations.

This trick can prevent your spouse from finding a high-quality attorney to represent them.

This was what Tony Soprano did in the hit HBO series “the Sopranos” to stop his wife from hiring one of the top divorce attorneys.

Pros and Cons of Using a Divorce Attorney

In contested divorces, hiring an attorney is highly recommended. In such situations, you need someone who truly understands the law and how it impacts your specific case.

However, when it comes to other types of divorces—namely uncontested divorces and summary dissolutions, the choice is less clear about whether or not to use a lawyer.

That’s because these types of divorces can take place without the involvement of an attorney, but some couples prefer to bring in a lawyer to help them through the process and all of the complicated legal forms.

Regardless, here are the pros and cons of hiring a divorce attorney in California to help you decide what is best for you.

  • Attorneys know your rights and give professional advice.
  • You don’t have to do everything yourself, leading to less stress.
  • Local attorneys know your state and county laws best.
  • Local attorneys might know the judges styles and can help you get a fair settlement from them.
  • Hiring an attorney is much more expensive than doing everything yourself.
  • Telling your spouse that you’re retaining a lawyer might cause drama.
  • This method can take longer if your attorney is working on several cases at once.

There are other options, such as online divorce companies, that can also assist you in filling out the legal forms necessary to get an uncontested divorce but at a much lower cost (usually between approximately $200 and $400).

Key Takeaways
If you are going through a contested divorce, we highly recommend that you hire a good divorce attorney who can represent your interests. To ensure you find a good lawyer, do your research and be sure to interview multiple candidates before settling on one to represent you.

Filing for Divorce in California

After you ask your husband or wife for a divorce you will need to file for a divorce to start the legal process. When filing for divorce in California, all of the necessary steps must be completed properly and in the proper order.

Otherwise, you might face delays in the dissolution of your marriage.

Pro Tip: The information below is perfect for you to get an overview of the divorce filing process and also use as a guide if you will be filing for divorce on your own. However, if you are using an attorney, their team will typically be taking care of these steps as part of their proper representation of you as a client.

Preparing Your Divorce Forms

It’s no small job to prepare the forms that need to be filed to enable you to get divorced.

The first step is to determine which type of divorce you will pursue: a contested divorce, an uncontested divorce, or a summary dissolution.

This decision will determine exactly which forms you will need to file and the process of going about filing them.

You and your spouse or partner must speak with one another to see if you agree enough to pursue an uncontested divorce or summary dissolution.

In both cases, the two spouses must agree on the significant parts of the settlement that dictate how to split up property, potential spousal support, or custody considerations.

If there are no prospects for an amicable agreement between the two parties (as there is often not), then you should prepare all the paperwork for the courts with a lawyer’s help.

Remember that the proposed division of assets and the treatment of custody that your original findings propose will be the basis for future negotiations.

This is true whether you are the petitioner for divorce (i.e., the party who submitted the Forms to Start a Divorce or Legal Separation) or the responder (i.e., the one who must file the Forms to Respond to a Divorce or Legal Separation).

When a spouse files forms that show they take issue with the terms of settlement proposed by the petitioner, a contested divorce follows.

In an uncontested divorce, you and your spouse will need to submit all the same documents, with one of you acting as the petitioner and the other acting as the respondee.

The major difference is that you and your spouse will have discussed and agreed upon everything you propose to the court on the initial Forms to Start a Divorce or Legal Separation.

Since there’s no controversy over what’s in that document, the respondee can reply by simply accepting its terms.

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Filing Your Divorce Forms

Once you have finished preparing your documents, you will need to file them with a local court.

Recall that California residency requirements dictate that one of the spouses must have lived in the county where you are filing the divorce forms for at least three months.

In other words, you can’t file your documents with just any court in California, but it must represent the county where you are a resident.

Once you have determined the proper county to file for divorce in, there are two steps to filing your documents in California.

  1. Make sure to double-check everything on your forms to ensure the information is correct and that you haven’t misread or misunderstood anything on the forms. You can do this yourself, have a lawyer review the documents, or go to your local court’s family law facilitator for help.
  2.  You’ll also need to copy all the forms you are submitting at least once, so that you can file one with the court and retain one for your records.
  3. Bring both copies of your forms to the clerk at your local court. They will return one copy with a stamp that says filed, and the other copy will enter the California Court system.
  4.  You will also need to pay filing fees at this stage of the process. Exactly how much they will cost depends on the details of your case and the type of divorce you are pursuing. Those who have financial hardship can apply for a fee waiver to avoid paying the filing fee.
  5.  Finally, there are additional forms to file if you are pursuing temporary orders from the court that will go into effect until the trial or settlement takes place. These include orders for protection from domestic violence, temporary spousal support, and orders for bill payment.

Serving Your Spouse

Once you have filed your divorce forms with the local court in a county where you or your spouse reside, you must serve those papers to your spouse.

Serving legal documents is a way of giving formal notice to the other side of any legal case, not just divorces.

There are many rules involved in serving court documents, so you must do it properly.

Now, you aren’t allowed to serve legal documents to your spouse on your behalf.

Instead, you need to find a third party to act as a server.

Guidelines on the California Courts website specify that appropriate servers are:

  • A friend or relative
  • A coworker
  • A county sheriff or marshal
  • A professional process server
  • Anyone over 18 who is not involved in the case

In contested divorces, you must use “personal service,” which means that the person acting as your server delivers the papers in-person to your spouse.

In uncontested divorces and summary dissolutions, however, you can serve your spouse by mail if they agree to it.

Since, in these cases, both spouses or partners are cooperating on the divorce, California Courts don’t believe the expense and difficulty of personal service are necessary.

Note that you will still need to have a third party mail the documents to your spouse on your behalf when using Service by Mail.

Financial Disclosures

It’s very important for both parties to truthfully fill out their Forms to Complete Your Preliminary Disclosure, which sets the factual groundwork of the case as it goes forward.

These forms are in the Income and Expense Declaration (FL-150), the Schedule of Assets and Debts or a Property Declaration (FL-142 and FL-160, respectively), and the Declaration Regarding Service of Declaration of Disclosure (FL-141).

A lawyer should also check these over because, in a contested divorce, mistakes on your disclosure forms can be costly and used against you.

Both parties will also have to submit all the preliminary disclosure documents in an uncontested divorce as well.

Since there will not be negotiations or court appearances in the future, the stakes are somewhat lower.

Nonetheless, you still want to make sure everything is correct for both legal and tax reasons.

The Court of California has published helpful documentation and video explainers for how to fill out these forms.

Finally, you’ll have to submit financial disclosures as well if you’re pursuing a summary dissolution of your marriage.

In this case, the financial disclosure forms are the same as in contested and uncontested divorces and no less important.

Both spouses will have to fill out separate Income and Expense Declarations (FL-150), as well as a few more forms and their past two years of tax returns.

Key Takeaways
Filing for divorce in California can be quite complicated. Make sure you’re aware of the four basic steps of the process: one spouse files for divorce, the other responds, both spouses submit their financial disclosure forms, and, finally, both spouses must submit various tax documents. A divorce attorney will handle coordination of all this paperwork for you as part of their services.

Online Divorce in California

In recent years, using online divorce services has gained popularity for uncontested divorces.

Depending on what website you choose, the company can take care of most of your divorce paperwork based on answers you provide through their guided user interface.

Some online divorce services merely help you complete your forms and provide instructions, while others will file and serve them on your behalf.

When you’re investigating the many options for getting an online divorce, look carefully at the services that are included in the basic price and compare what you’re getting with what other websites offer.

In general, getting an online divorce is much much cheaper than using an attorney to help you with the process.

Not only that, you’ll end up avoiding much of the effort and stress associated with divorces by using this very efficient method.

How to Qualify for an Online Divorce in California

You cannot pursue a contested divorce through an online platform in California because these websites are friendly to divorces where there are disputes that require judges or lawyers to be involved in the decision making process.

Online divorces involve uncontested divorces in California.

In these cases, spouses can work together to fill out their divorce papers through the website that guide them through filling out the legal forms.

Some websites will also assist married couples seeking a summary dissolution, but others focus on uncontested divorces.

Best Online Divorce Services
We reviewed, rated and ranked the 10 best online divorce services available for you to choose from. If you want to see which website will work best for you to end your divorce, we highly recommend you check out this valuable information. Check out the 10 BEST online divorce services here >>

Do You Still Need to Go to Court?

You will usually still need to go to court to complete many of the necessary steps of your divorce, even if you use an online divorce platform.

However, since you can’t use online platforms to get a contested divorce, you probably won’t have to attend any hearings in front of a judge.

It’s best to think of online divorce services as similar to online tax software.

You go through a form that asks you questions in plain English, and, based on your answers, the software fills in all the necessary information on the legal forms.

It’s easier to complete the forms using online software, especially if you aren’t great at reading and understanding legal jargon.

Key Takeaways
Online divorce software helps people seeking uncontested divorces and summary dissolutions to prepare their divorce forms. After that, you are still responsible for filing them and paying any relevant court fees. We recommend 3StepDivorce learn more >>

How Long Does It Take to Get a Divorce in California?

The length of time it will take to fully complete a divorce can vary widely based on any number of factors, from the type of divorce you’re pursuing to the presence of mistakes on forms.

Here is a short overview of the factors that increase or decrease the length of time it takes to finalize a divorce:

  • The Type of Divorce: Summary dissolution and uncontested divorces usually take much less time than contested divorces.
  • The Amount of Property: Couples that jointly hold a lot of property will face a longer process of figuring out its value and evenly dividing it.
  • Whether or not Court is Necessary: Divorces that require hearings before a judge will take much longer than divorces that avoid court.

Uncontested Divorces and Summary Dissolutions

The fastest you can get a divorce in California is six months.

The mandatory waiting period for a divorce is six months, which means that a judge will not sign the forms confirming the dissolution of your marriage for six months after all the required documents are submitted.

It’s possible to get a divorce in that short amount of time for couples getting an uncontested divorce or a summary dissolution.

Summary dissolutions are the easiest form of divorce to finalize within six months because couples make a joint petition to end the marriage.

As such, there’s no need for one spouse to petition for divorce and the other to respond, which can take time.

As long as both spouses have filled out all their financial disclosure documents and their joint property settlement is in order, a judge can finalize the divorce within six months.

Contested Divorces

Contested divorces are a little more complex.

Still, you can also finalize them quickly if both spouses are organized and committed to bringing an end to their marriage in the least amount of time possible.

For a contested divorce to be resolved quickly, both spouses should have all the relevant documents prepared and agree on everything their settlement requires.

However, if this were the case, an uncontested divorce is a much better option!

Once the petitioner files the initial petition for divorce with the court, everything else can happen quickly.

For instance, the couple can have a friend or mutual acquaintance serve the respondee’s papers on the same day they file the petition with the court.

Then, the respondee can respond to the petition without any delay.

Then, as soon as all the financial disclosures are taken care of, the six-month waiting period for finalizing the divorce can begin.

However, the amount and complexity of assets can affect the length of time of both an uncontested and contested divorce.

If there’s a big investment portfolio to go through or many properties to be assessed and divided, the divorce will naturally take longer.

When it comes to contested divorces, it can take much longer than six months to finalize them.

At the upper limit, a hotly contested divorce can take five or six years to be completed.

The least possible amount of time it takes to finish a contested divorce is typically around a year.

Differences in the process are responsible for the wide variation in how long it takes to complete a contested divorce.

If a couple can settle through mediation or negotiations led by the lawyers, then it may only take a year or so for the process to finish.

This is because the couple won’t need to have hearings in court to decide on matters they can’t agree upon.

In addition to being the quickest way to get a contested divorce, these options are also the cheapest.

Should a couple be unable to resolve their disagreements through mediation or negotiation, the length of time to complete the divorce gets both longer and more unpredictable.

The unpredictability comes from having to request a trial date to go over the areas of disagreement in court.

How long it takes to get that trial date isn’t easy to say, as it depends on the specific county in which you’ve filed for divorce and how many other active cases that court has on its docket.

If you’re lucky, you can get a trial date that’s not too far in the future, but if you’re unlucky, you might end up waiting many months.

These issues worsen if your divorce is contentious and complex enough to merit multiple days of hearings.

Private Judge

To avoid these long waits, some couples opt to pay for a “private judge,” who is certified to decide on issues of family law and issues legally binding decisions.

Couples pursuing this route need to pay the judge for their time, which isn’t cheap, but one can choose their trial date as a result.

Finally, any appeals to the judge’s decisions will further delay finalizing the divorce because further court dates will be necessary to resolve the appeal.

Key Takeaways
There is a wide range of time it takes for a divorce to be finalized in California. In the best-case scenario, an uncontested divorce or summary dissolution can be wrapped up in around six months, while contested divorces can last from one year to several years.

Divorce Costs in California

According to a report from Martindale-Nolo Research, on average, it costs $17,500 in California to divorce a spouse if there are no children involved and $26,000 when children are involved.

This is just an average that won’t necessarily reflect the true financial fallout from your divorce (though it’s also possible that it’s much worse than that, so be prepared).

This section contains the range of possible costs for different parts of the divorce process.

Like court fees, some are definite, and you’ll know exactly how much you’re paying.

Other costs of the divorce process have a huge variation in how much they’ll end up costing you—none more so than attorney fees.

Court Fees

Here are the two court fees that you will need to pay while getting a divorce in California:

  • Petition or other first paper (including a joint petition) for dissolution of marriage or domestic partnership – $435
  • Response or other first paper filed in response to petition for dissolution of marriage or domestic partnership – $435

Depending on the details of your case, you might need to pay some that aren’t on this list. Check this document, published by California Courts, for a complete overview.

Attorney Fees

Attorney’s fees are often the single biggest expense during a divorce. There are two main ways to pay for an attorney during divorce proceedings: a flat fee or an hourly rate.

Flat Fees

Lawyers that charge flat fees are usually your most inexpensive route to getting legal representation during a divorce.

They typically range between $2000 or $3000 and up to $10,000, depending on the case’s complexity.

You’ll agree on a flat fee with a lawyer within the first one or two meetings.

A flat fee means that the attorney has agreed to do all the work necessary to complete your divorce in exchange for a one-time payment.

There are various thoughts about whether it is wise to hire a divorce lawyer through a flat fee.

On the one hand, you don’t need to worry about running up a massive bill because the total cost has already been arranged.

On the other hand, lawyers that offer flat fees might not be as skilled or well-regarded as those who charge hourly rates.

Finally, paying a flat fee gives your lawyer an incentive to resolve your divorce as quickly as possible because they have nothing to gain from any litigation that’s not necessary.

In some situations, this can be a good thing, but it might tempt your lawyer to push you towards a quick settlement that’s not the best for your long-term interests.

Hourly Fees

Rather than charging one upfront fee as payment, many lawyers charge by the hour of work that they put into your case.

When you hear lawyers or someone going through a divorce talking about ‘billable hours,’ this is what they mean.

Your lawyer will charge you for the time they meet with you or are in court arguing before a judge and any other time they spend on your case.

They will charge for the time it takes them to fill in your divorce papers and prepare for any court dates.

These hours can rack up, especially in a complex or contentious divorce.

Exactly how much one needs to pay per hour is hard to nail down because lawyers don’t face any limitations on how much they can charge.

It’s a situation where lawyers are allowed to charge what they feel they are worth and their client base is willing to pay.

Different estimates of the average cost of hiring seem to coalesce around $300 per hour.

That means that some lawyers charge only around $100 or $200, while the hourly rates of others explode into the thousands!

Litigation Costs

Suppose you are going through a contested divorce and will have a hearing in court to resolve matters of disagreement between you and your spouse.

In that case, you will need to pay for litigation costs that cover the expenses associated with hearing your case in court.

These costs will revolve around the fees you must pay to independent auditors, experts, appraisers, and accountants.

If a case requires the help of outside experts, it’s likely complex enough to make any estimates impossible.

Perhaps you need an accountant to look into something quickly, but maybe the job is very difficult and will take days to complete.

How much you will need to pay will be different in each case.


When disagreements about critical matters like property division or child custody arise, an expensive trial isn’t always necessary.

You and your spouse can agree to undergo mediation.

This tactic is a negotiation led by an impartial mediator who can make certain binding decisions during the process.

Although the sticker price on mediation is high, usually between $4000 and $8000 with an average of $5000, it ends up being cheaper than going to a full trial.

Online Divorce Service

Online divorce services are the cheapest option by far, but not everyone can use them.

Usually, they cost between $150 and $400, depending on what service you need to purchase.

Please see the qualifications for getting an online divorce in the relevant section above.

Read More: We did a full review of the #1 online divorce website 3StepDivorce here

Key Takeaways
The average cost of getting a divorce in California is $17,500. However, depending on the type of divorce you are pursuing, this figure can be thousands of dollars more or less expensive.

Custody Considerations in California

When determining child custody in California, the courts have one overriding consideration, the child’s best interests.

When there’s a dispute over child custody in a divorce, the court will side with the spouse who can better argue that their proposed custody structure is best for the child(ren).

Legally, this custody structure is called a “parenting plan,” which sets out who the child will live with and how often and under what terms that visitation will happen.

There’s a further question about what considerations courts take into account when determining what’s in the child’s best interest.

In California, there are six factors that courts will use to evaluate which parent’s proposed plan is better for the child.

California courts don’t automatically award custody of children to either the father or the mother.

Instead, they look holistically at many different factors when determining custody.

Here are the six factors together with an explanation of each.

Remember that none of these is definitive in isolation; instead, the courts consider all of them simultaneously.

  1. The child’s age: A child’s age influences the court’s understanding of their needs and how they will react to different proposed parenting plans. For instance, it’s very rare (but not impossible) that a father will receive full custody of an infant.
  2. The child’s health: If a child has health issues, it may influence the court’s decision about custody to the extent that different spouses acting as the child’s caregiver would impact their well-being. Perhaps the work schedule of one of the parents prohibits them from administering a vital medication to the child—in that case, the courts wouldn’t hesitate to give custody to the other parent.
  3. The child’s emotional ties to each parent: When a child has a particularly strong bond with one of his parents, it will affect their well-being if separated from that parent.
  4. The parent’s ability to care for the child: If a parent isn’t able to take care of the child for any reason, then, of course, it harms the child’s well-being to be placed in their (inadequate) care. The parent’s inability to care for the child could be emotional, physical, or financial.
  5. Family violence and/or substance addiction: A history of either harming children or abusing drugs can show that a child will be in danger if he or she is under the care of someone with those tendencies. Courts generally take such factors seriously because the safety of the child is at issue.
  6. The child’s existing ties to their school, home, or community: When a child already has strong connections within a specific social situation, the courts may decide that moving is harmful to their well-being.
Key Takeaways
Courts in California take many different factors into account when determining what custody arrangement will best serve your child’s best interests.Sometimes, the ties that a child has to a particular area will be highly important, but other cases might revolve around one or the other parent’s ability to care for the child.

Child Support Considerations in California

In comparison to the subjective and vague way that courts in California decide on custody, the way that they consider child support is much more cut and dry.

There is a complex mathematical formula.

Once you know all the required information, you just need a calculator to figure it out.

California Child Support Services has published an online child support calculator that can help you determine your and your spouse’s obligations.

You will need to enter the following pieces of information into the child support calculator:

  1. The gross income that both parents take home each year
  2. How much time (as a percentage) the child spends with each parent
  3. The income tax deductions that each parent can claim
  4. The mandatory payroll deductions each parent is obligated to pay
  5. The costs of child care that each parent will incur

Once all this information is gathered and plugged into the proper places in the equation, you will see a generated amount of money.

The way that the determination is set up is that the less time that a parent with a higher income spends caring for the child, the greater the amount they will need to pay.

Judges do have the ability to deviate from what the guideline prescribes in terms of the amount of child support that needs to be paid (Ann. Cal. Fam. Code 4057 (a) and Ann. Cal. Fam. Code 4057 (b)).

When one parent is not pulling their weight in caring for their children, a judge orders them to pay additional child support.

Also, child support levels may be higher if there is a child who needs expensive medication or medical equipment.

Key Takeaways
The method of setting the amount of child support parents must pay after a divorce is fairly simple in California. It relies on a mathematical formula that takes into account the incomes and expenses of both parents.In certain situations, a judge can deviate from the prescribed amount of child support.

Alimony Considerations in California

In California, alimony (also known as spousal support) revolves around ensuring that both spouses can keep the same standard of living they enjoyed during the marriage.

The amount of spousal support isn’t set by a mathematical formula, like child support is, but rather by the court’s judgment of when the more dependent spouse will be able to achieve financial independence.

Ann. Cal. Fam. Code 4320 sets out considerations for determining spousal support that include the following:

  • What marketable skills the supported party possesses, as well as the employment prospects for that spouse based on the job market for their skills
  • How much assistance the supported spouse needs to maintain the standard of living established during the marriage
  • The ability of the supporting spouse to make the spousal support payments based on their income and assets
  • The duration of the marriage
  • The impact on any children of the supported spouse entering the job market
  • The history of domestic violence in the marriage

This list only includes a few factors that a Californian court considers when deciding on spousal support.

A judge considers and weighs all of these factors and more.

As such, a difference in even one aspect could produce potentially drastic changes in the outcome.

For example, a marriage that lasts less than ten years will see much less spousal support than a marriage of more than a decade.

Importantly, spousal support isn’t meant to be punitive in the California Court system.

Rather, it’s all about ensuring that one spouse doesn’t suffer undue hardship due to their marriage ending.

There are four different forms of spousal support that a Californian court can order:

  1. Temporary Spousal Support: This form of alimony helps a spouse afford basic living expenses for the duration of the divorce process but expires after finalizing the divorce.
  2. Rehabilitative Spousal Support: The courts judge a spouse who receives rehabilitative spousal support to need support for an extended amount of time to gain the skills necessary to enter the job market. This is usually because that spouse stayed home to take care of children while the other advanced in their career. After a set amount of time, the supported spouse stops receiving alimony payments.
  3. Permanent Spousal Support: Rarely granted, this form of spousal support is only ordered when the court determines that a spouse cannot enter the workforce and support themselves. For instance, if a spouse cannot work because of age or illness, the supporting spouse will have to assist them in maintaining their standard of living indefinitely.
  4. Reimbursement Spousal Support: Reimbursement spousal support only exists in California and covers situations where one spouse made sacrifices to enable the other to further their education or career. For instance, if one spouse paid for the other to go to school and get an advanced degree, that spouse can request the other reimburse them for the money they invested in the other’s education.
Key Takeaways
The determination of spousal support is one of the most complex and, often, one of the most contentious issues that must be settled for a divorce to be finalized. If you are facing a battle over spousal support, it’s essential to go to a lawyer for advice because of the complexity of the law.

The Division of Assets in California

Couples seeking a divorce in California can work out the division of assets that they jointly own without the involvement of courts through agreement, negotiation, or mediation.

The guidelines for dividing property are set out in sections 2500 – 2660 of the Ann. Cal. Fam. Code.

If couples have differences in how they believe the law applies to their situation that they cannot settle on their own, then the case can move forward to court hearings to determine how they will be split up.

This section will go over the procedures and guidelines for dividing different types of assets in the course of a divorce.

Real Estate

When it comes to property, there are generally a few options for what will happen to it after a divorce.

Sometimes, spouses will bargain to assign certain items to one or the other spouse.

For example, one spouse could remain in the family home while the other takes over sole ownership of the vacation house.

Another option is to sell all of the property and divide the proceeds from the sales.

Finally, some spouses decide to continue jointly owning the property after the divorce is finalized.

So long as there are clear rules surrounding these properties and the formerly married persons are on good terms, it’s not always as much of an issue for some divorcing couples.

401k, IRA, Investments

Retirement assets and other financial products like investments are notoriously difficult to divide during divorces.

In many cases, you must create a Qualified Domestic Relations Order (or QDRO) to split them up.

Most often, you will need to engage the services of an accountant or actuary to complete this step.


In California, a business will usually be split between the two divorcing spouses, even if one was the business’s primary owner and operator.

What usually happens is that the value of the business is appraised, and the owner/operator of the business ‘buys out’ the spouse that isn’t as involved in it.  

Other Assets

Anything other than the above types of jointly-held property also needs to be divided by the divorcing spouses.

These assets can be anything from an art collection to furniture or books.

Usually, spouses will agree on these sorts of assets, either dividing the collection itself (for example, one spouse gets three paintings, the other two) or by using the value of these assets to offset one spouse getting a more significant proportion of another type of asset.

Key Takeaways
The task of dividing assets is often a complicated and lengthy one. The goal is to evenly divide all jointly held property. When spouses cannot agree on what constitutes an equitable division of property, they must enter mediation or go to court to decide the outstanding issues.

Common-Law Marriage Considerations in California

Common-law marriage is a legal framework that ties together a couple as married even if they have not gone through the marriage process in a religious institution or a civil union.

Since California doesn’t recognize common-law marriages, all the legislation relevant to their dissolution is contained in the Ann. Cal. Fam. Code that governs divorces, legal separations, and summary dissolutions.

Key Takeaways
Common-law marriages are not recognized in California.

Alternatives to Divorce in California

Not every couple whose marriage is facing difficulties needs to get a divorce.

Here is a rundown of some of the other options California couples have to resolve their differences without getting a divorce.

Legal Separation

The main difference between a divorce and a legal separation is that divorces are permanent, while legal separations can be reversed.

Sometimes legal separations proceed to divorce, but this isn’t always necessarily the case.

When you get a legal separation in California, it comes in the form of a court order that sets out many of the same issues that a divorce settlement would, such as the custody of children, responsibility, and ownership of assets and debts, as well as child support.


A few particular situations exist in which a spouse can request an annulment of a marriage in California.

Section 2210 of the Ann. Cal. Fam. Code outlines them as follows:

  1. The marriage was made on fraudulent grounds, or one of the spouses is physically or mentally incapable.
  2. One of the spouses was below the legal age of marriage
  3. A spouse was already married or a part of a domestic partnership

Work It Out Together

Sometimes, the idea of divorce is brought up in the context of a heated moment in a marriage that can be overcome with time and care.

Just because things seem bad in a marriage doesn’t mean that divorce needs to be filed for the next day.

Seek Counseling

Couples facing complex issues in their marriage can often benefit from couples counseling, in which a professional therapist helps them work through their problems and be happier together.

Many couples have struggled with severe issues but managed to resolve them through counseling.

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Open Marriage

Some couples find that they get along well but face issues surrounding their sexual compatibility that puts pressure on the marriage.

In these situations, beginning an open marriage may lead to a general improvement in how happy a couple is together.

Parenting Marriage

Lastly, a parenting marriage is one where the couple lives separately but stays married to jointly care for their child or children.

They might enjoy certain aspects of their relationship but not lead a life that’s tied so closely together.

Nonetheless, these couples don’t think that divorce is the best option for them.

Key Takeaways
Given the difficulties and high expense of a divorce, it’s worth examining all of your options before starting the process of getting a divorce.