How easy is it to get divorced in California? Not as easy as you might think. As an experienced divorce attorney in the Inland Empire, working in San Bernardino County, Riverside County, Los Angeles County, and Orange County, I answer a lot of questions regarding “how to get a divorce.” Most people I talk with are shocked to learn that there are several steps to be completed before their divorce can be finalized. These individuals often believe step one, which is filing the Petition for Dissolution, is all that is required. Unfortunately, that is not the case. They are often also surprised to learn that each case takes a different path, depending on the parties and the issues in the case.
When I talk with a potential client, I try to educate each person on (1) the steps to get a divorce, which I have attempted to simplify into five and (2) the different paths each case can take, which I have attempted to simply into four. Below the steps and paths are explained more in detail.
If you have specific questions regarding your case, it is beneficial to set up a conversation with an experience divorce attorney in order to get a better idea of what you will expect in your specific case. Our office offers a free initial consultation and can give you more specific advice given your circumstances.
The Five Steps
1. Petition for Dissolution
The first step is to file a Petition for Dissolution (FL-100) and accompanying forms, which vary depending on the issues present in your specific case. The Petition for Dissolution gives the Court and your spouse information about you and your case – where you live, your date of marriage, your date of separation, your children’s names, and the issues that are present in your case. You can look at this form on the California Courts website. It is important to understand the Petition for Dissolution because it will frame the issues for your case and give your spouse notice of what you will be asking the court for. If you do not let your spouse know what you will be asking the court for, then you may not be able to get it. For example, if you do not put in the Petition for Dissolution that you want your spouse to pay Spousal Support, then you may be prevented from getting Spousal Support from him or her.
Along with the Petition for Dissolution, you will have to file other forms, including but not limited to a Summons (FL-110), a county specific case assignment sheet, a Declaration Under Uniform Child Custody and Jurisdiction Act (FL-105), if you have children, to name a few. All forms that you will include with the filing will depend on the facts of your case.
Once you file the Petition for Dissolution, along with the required forms for your specific case, you will need to serve or give your spouse with the paperwork. The types of service vary and can be explained further in your discussion with an attorney.
2. Response to Petition for Dissolution
The next step is for your spouse to file and serve the Response to the Petition for Dissolution (FL-120). Again, you can look at this form on the California Courts website. The Response to the Petition for Dissolution is very similar to the Petition for Dissolution. The form provides an opportunity for your spouse to let the Court and you know information about you and your case – where you live, your date of marriage, your date of separation, your children’s names, and the issues that are present in your case. Your spouse may agree with you regarding what issues are present, or he or she may disagree with you. For instance, on the Petition for Dissolution and the Response to the Petition for Dissolution, both parties can tell the court if there are community assets to be divided. As the Petitioner, you may list assets that you believe are community property. And, on the Response, your spouse may not list any assets, but rather tell the Court and you that there are no community assets to be divided. In addition to the Response to the Petition for Dissolution, there will be case specific forms included. These additional forms are similar to the forms accompanying the Petition.
Once your spouse has completed the Response to the Petition for Dissolution and accompanying forms, he or she will have to file it with the Court and mail you the document.
As mentioned above, every case is different and not all steps are required for every case. Completing and filing a Response to the Petition for Dissolution may not occur in your specific case, depending on the path your case will take.
3. Declarations of Disclosure
The third step is the Declarations of Disclosure. Both you and your spouse have to complete a Preliminary Declaration of Disclosure and a Final Declaration of Disclosure. A Declaration of Disclosure is a “full and accurate disclosure of all assets and liabilities”. When your case is on a certain path, you may be able to waive the Final Declaration of Disclosure; however, at least one Preliminary Declaration of Disclosure is required by the Petitioner in all cases.
If you are the person who files for divorce, you are considered the Petitioner. As the Petitioner, you must serve or mail the Preliminary Declaration of Disclosure to your spouse within 60 days of filing the Petition for Dissolution. Similarly, your spouse, called the Respondent, has to mail or serve his or her Preliminary Declaration of Disclosure within 60 days of filing a Response.
The Declaration of Disclosure (FL-140) lists the forms and information which create a Preliminary or Final Declaration of Disclosure. The form can be found on the California Courts website. But, very basically, you will want to complete the Declaration of Disclosure (FL-140), a Schedule of Assets and Debts (FL-142) or Property Declarations (FL-160) and an Income and Expense Declaration (FL-150). Some further information is requested on the Declaration of Disclosure, beyond these forms.
In order to properly complete the above forms, you will want to have a basic understanding of the terms. The Schedule of Assets and Debts asks you to list all assets and debts – both community assets and debts and separate assets and debts.
Assets are real property and personal property, tangible and intangible, existing or contingent. For example, a home is a real property asset and a goodwill of a business is considered an asset. Common assets listed on the forms are checking accounts, automobiles, and retirements. Debts are any liabilities or obligations currently existing or potential. For example, credit card balances are a very common form of debt. However, you can also list tax debt for a tax year not yet filed. Common debts listed on the forms are student loans, personal lines of credit, and medical bills.
Assets or debts are considered community when you got or incurred the asset or debt after your date of marriage and before your date of separation, except there is an exception which makes the asset or debt separate. Assets or debts are considered separate when you got or incurred the asset or debt before your date of marriage, after your date of separation, or if you received an asset during the marriage that is a gift or inheritance or if the debt incurred is specifically considered separate.
The characterization of whether or not an asset or debt is community or separate can be difficult but is very important, so I generally suggest to potential clients to start with a simple list. Write down every asset or debt you have knowledge about whether or not it is “in your name” or whether or not you have any control or possession of it. Explain where the asset or debt came from and when it was bought, obtained, or incurred. Be as specific as you can. Also, write down the value of the item. This step is very important when division of the community estate occurs.
In my conversations with potential clients or in my cases, at some point I will be asked, why do I have to do the Declaration of Disclosure? The legislature has required this step for every family law litigant as an attempt to simplify the divorce process. In some marriages, one person handles the finances and the other is in the dark, whether by choice or not. So, with the Declarations of Disclosure, the in-the-dark spouse is given the chance to be fully informed of the finances. Disclosing all known assets and debts is very important and there are high risks to a person who knowingly fails to disclose assets and debts. So, when in doubt, disclose.
4. Agreement or Litigation
The fourth step is one of two things – agreement or litigation – or can be a combo of the two. In short, after you set up the case for the Court and for your spouse, with the Petition and Response, followed by the Declarations of Disclosure, you and your spouse will either come to an agreement or you will not. If you are able to negotiate and make compromises, then your agreement will be the fourth step. If you are not able to negotiate, then litigation will be the fourth step. In some cases, parties can agree in some areas, but not all areas, so the four step might be a combination of agreements and litigation.
The ultimate goal of step four is to reach step five – the final judgment. In order to get a final judgment, the agreement needs to be put in writing or you need to ask the Court to make a court order on the issues that you and your spouse do not agree on. To get a court order, you will have to see a Judge and present the issue(s) to him or her. After all issues in your case are decided by agreement or litigation, then you move onto the final step.
5. Final Judgment
Once the agreement is complete or you are able to get court orders, then a Judgment of Dissolution will have to be prepared and submitted to the Court for approval. The Judgment Packet, as it is often called, is a combination of forms and documents prepared to reflect the final status of the case. Similar to the Petition for Dissolution or the Response to the Petition for Dissolution, there are forms for each type of case. On the California Courts website, you can review the Judgment Checklist (FL-182) for information on what is required for several types of Judgment Packets.
The final judgment is a necessary step to being divorced or having final orders in your case. Once a judge approves the Judgment as provided to the Court, the clerk of the court will mail out a Notice of Entry of Judgment (FL-190), which signals the end of the case. If this form is NOT mailed out, the case is not considered final. So, making sure to submit a final judgment to be reviewed and approved and returned with a Notice of Entry of Judgment (FL-190) is the final and most important step of the case.
In my experience, I have seen people in court asking why they are not divorced despite going through steps one through four. The only reason the case was not finalized – and they were not divorced – is because they failed to do a final judgment for review and approval. The court does not do this for you. You have to prepare and file the forms and attachments; otherwise, you will stay married and you will not have final orders.
The Four Paths
As I have mentioned, every case is different and you may not have to complete each of the above steps, depending on the path your case will take. In an attempt to educate people that I have talked with over the years regarding “how to get a divorce”, I have found it helpful to explain a divorce case can travel one of the following four paths.
1. Default Judgment
The first option is a Default Judgment. You will complete steps one, three, and five.
To start the divorce, you will file a Petition for Dissolution and serve your spouse. However, after you serve your spouse, he or she does not file a Response to the Petition. Maybe your spouse is out of the country, incarcerated, unable to file a Response to Dissolution, does not want to file a Response; however, you are still entitled to get divorce.
You will still have to complete step three – your Declaration of Disclosure. However, you will then skip step four – agreement or litigation – move right to step five and you will complete a Judgment Packet to submit to the Court for review, approval, and signature. In some cases, the Court will require you to come into Court to ask you questions regarding the final judgment that you prepared and submitted.
2. Default Judgement with Agreement
The second option is a Default Judgment with Agreement. You will complete step one, three, four, and five.
To start the divorce, you will file a Petition for Dissolution and serve your spouse. However, after you serve your spouse, you and your spouse may decide to come to an agreement and can avoid filing a Response to the Petition. The option for a Default Judgment with Agreement is ideal for two reasons – it cuts down the work required and the costs required. With a Default Judgment with Agreement, the Respondent does not have to complete a Response to the Petition or pay the filing fee for the Response to the Petition or complete a Declaration of Disclosure! It is ideal for parties who have a full agreement and an amicable divorce.
After you file a Petition for Dissolution, as the Petitioner, you will have to complete step three – your Declaration of Disclosure. Afterwards, you and your spouse will want to reduce your agreement to writing, which your spouse will sign and have his or her signature notarized. You will include the notarized agreement in the Judgment, which in step five is prepared and sent to the Court for review and approval.
3. Uncontested Judgment
The third option is an Uncontested Judgment.You will complete step one, two, three, four, and five.
If your case follows this path, you will file a Petition for Dissolution and serve your spouse. Your spouse will then file a Response to the Petition for Dissolution. Both parties will complete and serve their Declaration of Disclosure. At this point, negotiating will occur and an agreement will be drafted. Neither party will ever have to go to court. Once the agreement is reduced to writing and both parties sign the agreement, the final judgment is prepared and submitted to the court for approval by the Judge.
4. Litigated Judgment
The last option is a Litigated Judgment. You will complete step one, two, three, four, and five.
Similar to the Uncontested Judgment, you will file a Petition for Dissolution and serve your spouse. Your spouse will then file a Response to the Petition for Dissolution. Both parties will complete and serve their Declarations of Disclosure. However, because you will not be able to come to an agreement, you and your spouse will go to Court and have the Judge make court orders regarding the issues in your case. Once the Court makes orders, those orders will be reduced to writing and a final judgment will have to be prepared and submitted for review and approval by the Judge.
Over the years, I have been able to boil down the steps and paths of a divorce case to quickly and briefly explain it to the masses. The above is merely a framework to help any non-attorney understand where they may be headed and what to expect in their case. Every step is colored with exceptions to the rule, additional requirements, and caveats. An experienced attorney can walk you through each of the steps and paths more in detail, given the unique facts of your case. If you are considering filing for divorce or if you are confused about where you are in the process, call our office for a free initial consultation at 909-466-5575.