What are the steps and timing involved in obtaining a divorce in California?  This is one of the first questions you will probably ask when you meet your lawyer, coach, or financial professional.

To get a divorce in California, three steps are required:

  1. The filing of a Petition for Dissolution of Marriage in the County in which you reside.
  2. Identification of all assets, debts, income and expenses.
  3. Creating the terms of a Judgment.

The Petition is a “check the box” form, three pages long, which is filed with the court along with a Summons.  If there are children, a third form is filed, stating the names, ages, place of birth, and addresses of residence for the last five years.  This filing causes a case file to be opened in the court system.  These forms must be “served” upon the non-filing spouse, which can be done by mail if the non-filing spouse will acknowledge receipt.  There is no legal significance related to who files the Petition, but sometimes there is an emotional component.  Couples can have a conversation about who will file the initiating forms and when this will occur.  The soonest a couple can be restored to the status of single individuals is six months after the Petition is filed and delivered to the non-filing spouse.

The second step is referred to as the Disclosure requirement.  The legislature has mandated that couples fully, and under penalty of perjury, identify each and every asset, obligation, all income and their expenses.  These forms are exchanged, but not filed with the court.  The purpose is for each person to have all the financial information needed to proceed with the divorce process, where assets and debts will need to be divided and decisions made about how living expenses will be paid. 

The final step is obtaining a written document specifying the terms of the divorce, including the financial terms, rights and responsibilities relating to the children. Couples can prepare an agreement (Marital Settlement Agreement) or, if that is not possible, the court can be asked to make decisions on all disputed topics. The agreement or court rulings become an enforceable Judgment or Dissolution of Marriage.

The process in which these three steps will occur is an important consideration.   How you choose to divorce will affect you, your parenting, and your financial outcome.  You want an outcome that is the best for you considering your assets, your finances, and all of the people involved.  You may not want a relationship with your spouse now, but if you have children, they need their parents to have a working relationship.  Learn about your process choices: “Do it Yourself,” litigation, mediation or Collaborative Practice.  You can learn more about each of these processes and the choices that you have at a Divorce Options workshop near you.  In Marin, Divorce Options workshops are held on the last Saturday of the month.  See divorceoptionsinfo.org for a complete listing of workshops around California and the US.

Susan Stephens Coats is a Family Law Attorney in San Francisco and Marin County.  http://www.collaborativepracticemarin.org/members/Coats

Photo credit: Ann Buscho, Ph.D.