Making the Decision
The most important step in any divorce, is to decide that you are ready to end your marriage. Some people are sure of this decision, and others are not. Once started, the divorce process can be stopped, and your case can be dismissed. However, once the divorce process has begun, a dismissal generally requires that both parties agree to stop the divorce. So, do not initiate the divorce process unless you are sure that you wish to end your marriage, because your spouse may not be willing to stop the process once you've taken the first steps down the road to divorce.
Initiating the Court Process
If you decide to proceed with a divorce, there are only a few forms that need to be filed with the court in order to start the process - the two most essential forms are the Petition (FL-100) and Summons (FL-110). Every local courthouse that handles family law matters will have packets of family law forms available for you to prepare and file. A court filing fee must also be paid. Currently, CA courts require a payment of $395 to open a divorce case. If you have issues that cannot be settled, and instead need to be addressed and resolved by the court, such as custody disputes, spousal or child support, restraining orders or other issues that require more immediate attention, then this would also be a good time to raise any such issues with the court. You should consult with an attorney if you wish to have the court address such issues at any time in your divorce.
Service of Process
Once you have filed the initial forms at your local courthouse, you will need to serve those forms on your spouse. There are generally two methods to effect proper service. The first method is to have a process server, or other reliable adult over the age of 18, personally deliver the forms to your spouse. The second method is to have a reliable adult, over the age of 18, mail the forms to your spouse along with a form entitled Notice and Acknowledgment of Receipt, or FL-117. This form must then be signed by your spouse and mailed back to you for filing with the court. Regardless of which method you choose, you must also have the person who serves the papers, execute and file a Proof of Service of Summons (FL-115).
The third step in the standard divorce process is to prepare and serve your financial disclosures. Under CA law, both parties must disclose to one another, both their income and expenses (FL-150) and their assets and debts (FL-142). Both parties may disclose the same information and items on each set of forms, or they may disclose different items, depending on the information available to each party. These disclosures must be exchanged (Fl-140), either by one or both parties, and proof of this exchange must be filed with the court (FL-141) before your divorce can become final. If you have significant assets or debts at issue in your divorce, particularly if you own a home, have retirement accounts or if you have investments or significant cash assets, then you should consult with an attorney to discuss the best approaches for dividing those assets and debts.
Settlement is the preferred means of resolving issues in any divorce. Judges encourage settlement, in part, because divorces are personal affairs, and the details of any given divorce can be very different. A judge, who's never met you or your spouse, is not going to be as knowledgable as you and your spouse when it comes to making decisions that may have significant lasting effects on both of your lives. When the parties resolve their own conflicts, they typically feel a greater commitment to the resolutions that are reached, and, ideally, both sides can know that their goals and needs were met. Decisions that are forced upon couples by the court, often leave both sides feeling as if they lost. Also, settlement generally saves everyone from wasted time, money, and aggravation. If you are unable to reach an unmediated settlement with your spouse, then you should consult with an attorney to discuss if a mediated settlement is a reasonable approach in your case.
Judgment of Dissolution
The final step in any divorce is to obtain a judgment of dissolution. A judgment of dissolution can be obtained in a few different ways, depending on the particulars of your case. Generally, there are 4 different paths to obtain a judgment. 1) True Default, in which the Petition is filed, no answer is filed, no agreement is signed, and the court is asked to finalize the divorce; 2) Default with Agreement, in which you and your spouse execute a written document detailing your divorce agreements, and you ask the court to enter judgment based on that written agreement; 3) Uncontested, where an answer is filed and both parties execute a written agreement; and 4) Court Hearing, in which the court is asked to make orders in your case, and then enters judgment based upon those orders. In any of these scenarios, your divorce is not final until a Judgment has been signed by the judge (FL-180) and a Notice of Entry of Judgment has been executed and filed by the court (FL-190).
At any point, prior to the entry of judgment, you can request court intervention in any or all issues in your divorce. The court can be asked to intervene in many different situations, including: custody and visitation disputes, child and spousal support orders, property division, domestic violence issues, property control and possession, and more. If you need assistance with any of these issues in your divorce, then you should seek the assistance of an attorney. Most counties offer free basic assistance through family law facilitator's offices. Check with your local county for such services.