7 Steps and 3 Keys to California's Divorce Process from Petition to Judgment

We will show you how to get through your divorce

The divorce process in California is not as complicated as you may think

Navigating the California divorce process initially feels like a challenge. With lawyers, judges, complicated laws and procedures, and the uncertainty of what the divorce will cost, it is no wonder spouses consider the divorce process the most challenging thing they will go through in life.

We know that well because we help our clients navigate it each day. As it does for you now, it was the same for our clients when they first came to us. Everything initially seemed frightening and even overwhelming until they realized what knowledge and the quality of representation could do for them.

This article removes the shroud and provides the step-by-step California divorce process.

This guide will cover the grounds for divorce, the process from petition to judgment, and some key issues such as child custody, child support, alimony (also called spousal support), and property division. We will also offer tips for handling the emotional challenges of a divorce.

Legal Grounds for Divorce in California

California is a no-fault divorce state. That means the person who files for divorce need not show the other spouse did something wrong. The most common ground for divorce is "irreconcilable differences." That means that the spouses' differences cannot be fixed.

The Step-by-Step Divorce Process

1. Filing the Petition: The divorce process begins when one spouse (the petitioner) files a petition for divorce in the California Superior Court. The case is filed in a California county with the power (called jurisdiction) to process the case.

The petition includes important information about the marriage, including the date of marriage, date of separation, identification of the children, child custody, child support, spousal support, identification of the separate property, community property, what the petitioner wants regarding attorney's fees (which may be need-based fees or sanctions) and costs, and more.

2. Serving the Petition: Once the petition is filed, it must be legally served to the other spouse (the respondent), along with a summons that provides information on the divorce process. Most counties have local forms that also need to be served. The law also requires a blank response and potentially other blank forms served with the petition. The respondent has 30 days to file a response.

3. Financial Disclosures: Both parties must exchange financial disclosures detailing their income, expenses, assets, and debts.

4. Temporary Orders: Either or both spouses can request temporary court orders for child support, child custody, spousal support, attorney's fees, or other issues. Temporary orders remain until modified with long-term orders.

5. Negotiation and Settlement: Many divorce cases are settled through negotiation between the spouses. If the spouses settle the issues, the attorneys prepare a settlement document called a stipulated (agreed-upon) judgment. In the old days, that was called a marital settlement agreement (MSA), and some people call it that.

A settlement is not all or nothing. Sometimes, spouses settle some issues but not others. That is fine, and if that happens, the stipulated judgment can include the settled terms and let the court handle those issues the spouses could not settle.

6. Trial: If the spouses cannot agree on an issue, the issue will go to trial. A judge or commissioner will then make the decision. The judge's orders become part of the judgment.

7. Appeal: If a spouse disagrees with the judge or commissioner's decision and has a factual and legal basis to dispute it, that spouse may file an appeal. An appeal takes those issues that are part of it to a higher court (called an appellate court).

Three Key Issues in Divorce

  • Child Custody and Child Support: California courts prioritize the child's best interests. That is the focus. Therefore, the parents must determine the child's best interest or the court will. Child support is determined using California State Guidelines, which is a formula that considers the income of both parents, the time the child spends with each parent, and other factors. Sometimes, a court may stray from the formula, but that requires the court to explain why it did so, and it must be a reason the law allows.
  • Division of Property: California is a community property state, meaning, in most cases, assets acquired and debts incurred during the marriage with marital funds are considered community property. Separate property, owned by one spouse before the marriage or through separate sources (commonly a gift or inheritance), is considered the spouse's separate property. Sometimes, an asset or debt may be partially community property and separate property.
  • Spousal Support: Also known as alimony, the court may give spousal support to one spouse to maintain a status quo or the marital standard of living established during the marriage. Temporary spousal support is often based on the same computer formula that also calculates child support. However, the spousal support at the end of the divorce is often not based on that program, although it is common for divorce lawyers to look at it for guidance. Factors considered include but are not limited to the length of the marriage, each spouse's financial situation, and the ability of each spouse to earn an income.

Tips for Navigating the California Divorce Process

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  • Seek Legal Advice: You must understand your rights and obligations. You need to know what California law requires of you and what it gives you. If you do not understand this, you are blindly walking through the divorce process, hoping for the best. There are better ways of handling essential and sometimes life-changing decisions.
  • Consider Mediation: Some cases are suitable for divorce mediation. Those are usually cases where the spouses are friendly and get along with each other and need someone to walk them through the divorce process. Divorce mediators do not represent either spouse, so each spouse still should have an attorney.
  • Take Care of Yourself: Divorce can be emotionally taxing. It can test your patience and may cause you to make poor choices if those are based on emotions. Facts, law, and logic must rule the day if you want to make intelligent choices. Seek support from professionals, such as therapists, to manage the stress and emotional challenges. Choose your divorce attorney carefully. Good divorce lawyers make the process more manageable through honesty and effective communication skills.
  • Focus on the Future: It is normal to feel anger or sadness during a divorce. But you will get through it. Nobody goes through divorce forever. Focus on your future well-being and that of each child you have. Keep everything in perspective. Divorce is a chapter of your life that will eventually end. There is life after divorce, and you will turn the page to your post-divorce life, where you can learn from the experience and be a better person for it.

The next step in the process is up to you

The California divorce process allows you to end your marriage, receive orders for child custody, child support, and spousal support (if those issues apply to you), and properly divide assets and debts.

By understanding the process and seeking good support and advice, you can navigate the divorce with a clear sense of direction and purpose. We can help you do exactly that.