What you need to know about divorce in California

Getting divorced in California requires certain specific legal actions. Take a look at how you can get started with your divorce proceedings.

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What's Inside

What's Inside

Are you thinking of getting a divorce in California? You’re not alone. Divorce, or the legal dissolution of marriage, is a common legal proceeding in the state. Some estimates suggest that up to 9.2% of marriages in California will end in divorce this year.

Although divorce is legal in every state, the process looks a little different from place to place. Getting a divorce in California requires you to establish that you are a resident, be separated from your spouse and legally declare why you’re divorcing—your “grounds for divorce”.

Although the divorce process may seem challenging, learning about California law is a good way to begin. The guidelines below can help you better understand California’s requirements and give you the tools to navigate divorce and put your partnership behind you.

What are the residency requirements to file for divorce in California?

First things first: You must be a resident of California to get a divorce there. California requires at least one spouse to live in the state for more than six months before they can begin divorce proceedings—including three months in the county where you will file your paperwork. If you don’t meet these requirements, you can legally separate from your spouse in California, but that doesn’t fully dissolve your marriage. 

Anyone who may be confused about whether they meet the requirements to file for divorce in California can use the state court’s Self-Help Tool. This tool includes a brief survey about where you live and offers customized instructions about how and where to file based on your answers.

There are exceptions to the residency rule. One is for same-sex couples who married in California but now reside in a different state that doesn’t allow same-sex divorce. In those cases, the court in the county where you were married can grant a divorce but may not be able to deal with spousal support, child custody or support, or make decisions about property division. 

California was the first state in the nation to allow a “no-fault divorce”, allowing couples to dissolve their marriage without first having to prove adultery, abuse or abandonment. There are two types of grounds that you can cite when filing a no-fault divorce in California: irreconcilable differences and incurable insanity.

Most people declare “irreconcilable differences” when dissolving their marriage. This means you don’t get along and can’t salvage your partnership. You don’t have to disclose your irreconcilable differences. If you’re dissatisfied with your marriage and want to move on, that’s enough for California to grant you a divorce. 

You can get divorced in California if you want a divorce and your spouse doesn’t. The state courts treat that disagreement as proof of irreconcilable differences and allow the proceedings to continue.

Very rarely, a spouse will cite “incurable insanity” as grounds for their no-fault divorce. To dissolve their marriage under that declaration, a spouse has to provide medical records with documented evidence that their spouse is mentally ill and won’t recover.

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Can I get spousal support? What factors will a judge consider?

Spousal support, or alimony, is a court order that requires one spouse to provide monetary support to the other for a specific period. Usually courts assign spousal support in cases where there is a significant discrepancy in income between spouses or when the court feels it’s necessary to help sustain a spouse until they can fully support themselves. 

There are two types of spousal support: 

  • Temporary spousal support requires the higher-earning partner to support their spouse during divorce proceedings to cover immediate financial needs. You can ask for temporary spousal support as soon as you file your California divorce papers
  • Long-term spousal support requires the higher-earning partner to make monthly payments to support their ex-spouse after divorce. It’s most commonly needed when two people have been married for an extended period and when one earns much more than the other.

When considering whether or not to grant spousal support, judges in California weigh: 

  • Each spouse’s age, needs, health requirements, current income, history of unemployment and earning capacity
  • Your standard of living while you were married
  • Any property or debt you share
  • If either spouse helped the other achieve financial, educational or professional success 
  • Whether there was a history of abuse, infidelity or abandonment
  • How any minor children might be affected
  • The length of time you were married

In California, if a marriage lasts less than 10 years, the court sometimes requires the spouse who earns more to pay support for half the length of the marriage. After 10 years, the courts consider a marriage “long-term” and may make more prolonged or permanent spousal support mandatory depending on a couple’s situation.

California laws on property division in divorce

Because California is considered a “community property state”, any property or assets you gain during the marriage belong to both spouses and must be divided equally. However, there are exceptions, so talk to an attorney.

California laws on child custody

Child custody cases in California are based on what the court considers to be the child’s best interest. There are two types of custody:

  • Legal custody declares whether one or both parents have the right to make decisions about a child’s health and welfare. This can include where the child lives, where they get their education and medical care, what religion they practice and whether and where they travel abroad.
  • Physical custody declares where the child lives. In cases where one parent has primary physical custody, the child lives with them while the other parent has visitation rights. In cases where there is joint physical custody, the child splits their time living with each parent.

Child support in California

Child support ensures that each parent is equally obligated to their child and that they can each provide the same living standard. While considering child support orders, the court takes into account the number of children, how much time the children spend with each parent and how much money each parent makes. They may also consider whether children have special needs, extracurricular expenses, travel expenses and whether they go to public or private school. 

How to file for divorce in California

Everyone seeking a divorce in California must begin by filling out two forms, a petition for divorce and a summons.

The petition for divorce asks you for details about your marriage, legal grounds for divorce and property.

The summons alerts your spouse that you’re filing for divorce and gives them 30 days to respond to your petition officially.

If you have minor children with your spouse, you also have to fill out a form with their details to file along with your other documents.

1. Filing the divorce petition

Once you’ve completed your paperwork, you must file the forms with the appropriate court in the county where you or your spouse live. Although the process is relatively straightforward, there are a few key points to be aware of.

First, filing your forms and beginning your divorce proceedings currently costs between $435 and $450. If you cannot afford the filing fees, you can petition the court to waive them and any other costs that might arise from the court case. To qualify for a waiver, you must fill out a confidential request to waive your fee and include information about your household finances that prove your inability to pay. 

Secondly, once you file your paperwork with the court, you become a petitioner and your spouse becomes a respondent. When that happens, you become officially subject to California’s standard family law restraining orders, which disallow you from making any significant financial or household decisions without outside input. That means you cannot take minor children out of the state, hide or transfer money, or make large purchases without written consent from your spouse or court order.

2. Serving the divorce papers

After filing your paperwork, you must arrange for someone else to hand-deliver copies to your spouse to notify them that you are petitioning for a divorce. You cannot serve the papers yourself. 

The person serving the papers must be an adult over 18 who isn’t involved with your case. They can be someone you know personally, a professional you hire or, in some areas, the county sheriff. Unless you completed a fee waiver as a part of your initial filing, the sheriff charges to serve your papers.

In exceptional cases, you may need a specific individual to serve papers to your spouse. For example, if your spouse is incarcerated, you have to contact the jail or prison to find out how they handle serving documents to inmates. If your spouse is in another country, another state or the military, or you aren’t sure where to find them, contact the California courts or an attorney for specialized guidance.

Once your server hands the documents to your spouse, they need to complete a proof of service summons and file it with the court. After being served, the spouse becomes a respondent and is subject to California’s Standard Family Law Restraining Orders.

3. Responding to the divorce petition

If you receive a petition from a server, it means that your spouse is taking you to court to dissolve your marriage legally. The petition will include details about how your spouse would like to divide property and assets, spousal support and child custody. 

Once you receive a petition, you have 30 days to file a response form in court. That form gives you input on any decision the court makes during divorce proceedings. If you don’t file a response form, your spouse can ask for a default divorce, and the court case will proceed without anyone hearing your side.

Remember that as soon as you receive a petition, you’re automatically held to California’s standard family law restraining orders. You can no longer make major financial or household decisions without written prior authorization from your spouse or court order.

Once you file your response forms, you’re required to deliver copies to your spouse. You can ask a third-party adult to mail the documents to your spouse. After sending the papers, your server should complete a form declaring they completed the task.

4. Exchanging financial disclosures

California courts require divorcing spouses to share their financial information with each other. This data gives the court a good starting point for dividing up assets and making decisions about spousal support, child support and child custody. 

To share your information, fill out court-provided forms that address your income, property and debts. You have 60 days after filing a petition or a response to complete the first round of financial disclosures. Depending on your case, the court might require a second round of financial disclosures toward the end of your proceedings.

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In an uncontested divorce, after the petition and response have been filed and financial disclosures have been exchanged, rather than pursuing litigation, the parties enter into a binding settlement agreement. 

Uncontested divorces are typically cheaper and faster than contested divorces since you avoid going to trial. Instead, couples use an alternative dispute resolution such as mediation: They hire a neutral mediator who helps the spouses reach an agreement on each of the terms of their divorce. The mediator then helps create a marital settlement agreement that’s presented to a judge to review. The judge makes the final decision on the terms of the divorce.

Talk to a divorce attorney

Divorce can be a challenging experience. If you’re considering dissolving your marriage or you’ve received a petition requiring a response, it may be a good idea to contact an attorney for guidance and information. They’ll listen to your situation, note any exceptional or complex circumstances and advise you about moving through your divorce process as quickly and efficiently as possible.

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Disclaimer: This article is provided as general information, not legal advice, and may not reflect the current laws in your state. It does not create an attorney-client relationship and is not a substitute for seeking legal counsel based on the facts of your circumstance. No reader should act based on this article without seeking legal advice from a lawyer licensed in their state.

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