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How do I file for divorce?

To obtain the proper forms, purchase a dissolution form packet for a minimal fee from the clerk of your county’s superior court. Or, go to the California Courts website (courts.ca.gov). You or your lawyer or mediator will have to prepare a Petition and a Summons. You begin the process by filing your Petition and Summons with the clerk of the superior court in the county where you or your spouse live. You will have to pay a fee to file these papers unless you have a very low income and qualify for a fee waiver.

Copies of the Petition and Summons, and a blank Response, must be officially delivered (or, in legal terms, served) to your spouse by someone other than yourself who is over the age of 18. The Summons is a paper that notifies your spouse that you are filing for a divorce and that he or she has 30 days in which to file the Response.

In the Response, your spouse then indicates what needs to be resolved by the court. For example, he or she might object to your request for spousal support or sole custody of your children.

After you file, the following steps may occur:

  • Disclosure: You will have to complete disclosure declarations that provide information about your income, expenses, assets and debts—and have them officially delivered to your spouse. (The court will later require proof that you served your spouse with a Final Disclosure Declaration, unless it is waived.)
  • Temporary orders: You or your spouse may ask for a hearing so that a judge can decide any temporary child custody, visitation, support, requests for attorney fees or restraining order disputes. Such hearings are called Order to Show Cause hearings.
  • Agreement: You and your spouse (and your mediator or lawyers, if you have any) will work on permanently resolving the issues raised in the dissolution. If you reach an agreement, you may not have to appear in court and a judgment based on your agreement can be entered. You will have to submit a sworn statement to the court saying that the marriage is ending because of irreconcilable differences.
  • Trial: If you are unable to reach an agreement, you and your spouse will appear in court for a trial in which a judge will make the decisions.
  • Default: If your spouse does not file a Response, you may request a default and proceed to a default hearing to obtain a judgment. You will be asking the court to enter a judgment consistent with the requests in your petition.
  • Judgment: A judgment can be entered at any time, but you would not be divorced until at least six months after your spouse was served with the petition. The court does not automatically end your marriage when the six months have passed. You cannot legally remarry until you obtain a judgment even if the six months have passed. If you want to remarry or have some other reason for wanting to be single at the end of six months, a judge can dissolve your marriage even though some property or other issues are not yet settled.

Not all of these steps will be necessary in every case. For example, you may simply reach an agreement and get a judgment without the need for temporary orders of any kind.