Overview of the Divorce Process in California
Summary: An overview of the divorce process in California. Many people who file for a divorce do not finish their case because they either get overwhelmed by the process. However, many people make mistakes along the way and believe -- erroneously -- that their divorce is done when it actually isn't.
At it's core, a California divorce is about resolving a series of items on a checklist. This is the case regardless of whether you are a Hollywood celebrity or a homeless person. These items might be questions such as "How will the couple's debts be divided?" or "Who will get custody of the children?" The items on the checklist will vary (e.g. if you and your soon-to-be ex do not have children, then you don't need to decide custody) depending on each individual couple's situation.
The manner in which the items -- whatever they turn out to be -- on each divorcing couple's checklist will vary. It all boils down to whether and how quickly the couple can reach an agreement on each of the items. For instance, if a couple agrees fairly quickly on things like debt division, spousal support, etc, then the overall divorce might be fairly simple and fast. On the other hand, if the couple wanted to, they could argue and fight over literally every single thing in their case. In my experience, those are the divorces that last for years and years and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars
California, for better or worse, has a very paper-intensive divorce process. Even if the couple agrees on everything on their checklist, a court case still needs to be filed. The various time periods and other steps in the divorce process still need to be followed.
Here are the basic steps:
Step 1: Filing the Petition
Once you've decided to file for divorce, the first step is to fill out and file the Petition and Summons forms. In California, these are the pre-printed forms FL-100 and FL-110, respectively, put out by the Judicial Council of California. These are the two forms that every divorce case will have. You'll have other forms also if you have, for example, minor children in the case and custody and visitation need to be decided as well. You may also have forms that are specific to your county (i.e. "Local Forms"), but those vary from county to county.
Step 2: Serving the Petition and Summons
Once the Petition is filed, they have to be served on the other spouse. You've probably seen divorce papers being served in movies or on television. At the end of the day, the Petition, Summons, and other forms need to be given to the other spouse. However, they need to be given in the manner specified under California law (e.g. personal service). Not all methods (e.g. emailing them) are sufficient.
Step 3: Response & Financial Disclosures
Once the Petition has been served and a Proof of Service filed with the court, then the responding spouse is entitled to 30 calendar days within which they can decide how they want to handle the case. This depends entirely on the responding spouse. They might want to file a Responde (Judicial Council Form FL-120) with the court or they might not. Either way, they are entitled to their 30 calendar days.
If I represent the petitioning spouse, I usually take this 30 day period to have my client do their preliminary financial disclosures, sometimes called the Preliminary Declarations of Disclosure (PDD). There are a few ways to do PDDs, but the most common way I see is to do the Income and Expense Declaration (Judicial Council form FL-150) and the Schedule of Assets and Debts (Judicial Council form FL-142). These forms do, unfortunately, involve a bit of math and you do have to think like an accountant a little bit, but they are required forms. If you're the petitioning spouse, you have to do them. If you're the responding spouse and you file a Response, you have to do PDDs also.
Once the required PDDs are served, the uniform or standard part of the divorce case is basically done. As I hinted at earlier, every divorce is unique (e.g. not every couple has minor children) and the paperwork and steps you need to take to finish your divorce once the required PDDs are done vary depending on the facts of your case.
Once you have finished all of these steps, however, your reward is a signed copy of a judgment form (Judicial Council form FL-180). This is your proof that your divorce is complete and that you're legally single again. I'd recommend you keep the FL-180 alongside other important documents like your passport, birth certificate, etc.
One very common mistake I have encountered is that people believe that their divorce is complete afte they file and serve their petition (i.e. they do Step 1 and 2 above and then stop). For better or worse, California has a law that basically says that the earliest a divorce can be granted is 6 months and 1 day after the divorce papers are served. This law often misquoted as saying that a divorce is automatic 6 months and 1 day after the divorce papers are served. As a result, many people belive that all they need to do to be divorced is file and serve their divorce petition and then wait 6 months and a day. These people never obtain a signed FL-180 form from the court.
Believing that you're divorced when you actually aren't isn't great, but is also not too terribly bad on its own. The bigger problem arises when that same person then gets married again under the erroneous belief that they're divorced. Because they actually aren't, getting married again causes problems including bigamy and community property rights with respect to spouse #2. These problems are all easily solved by simply getting divorced properly in the first place.
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