Obtain all the Court forms online (for free)
Visit www.courtinfo.ca.gov and click the "forms" link at the top of the page. Then, click on the pull-down menu in the middle of the page and select "Family Law - Dissolution, Legal Separation and Annulment". All the forms you need are right here. You can download them as fillable PDF files that will let you type the information into the appropriate blanks and print out the forms on your printer. (Unfortunately you won't be able to save the forms unless you have the full version of Adobe Acrobat.) If you do not have a computer or Internet access, you can generally purchase the forms for a nominal fee (e.g. $1/ea) from the Court Clerk.
Complete the Petition, Summons and UCCJEA Declaration (if applicable)
The Petition (FL-100) is the form that tells the Court that you want a divorce and what orders you ultimately want in your case. The Summons (FL-110) is the official notification to your spouse that s/he is being sued for divorce. The UCCJEA Declaration (FL-105) is a document you only need to complete if there are minor children of the marriage. It essentially informs the Court of where your children were born, where they have lived for the past five years, and whether you know of anyone else who might want to claim custody of your children.
File the Petition, Summons and UCCJEA Declaration
Take these two or three forms to the Court Clerk in your county. Some counties (e.g. Contra Costa and Solano) have separate family law clerks (Contra Costa even has a standalone family law building), while others only have one clerk for all civil matters. Unless you have virtually no income, you will be expected to pay a filing fee of $350 (2009 schedule) for your "first papers." This will be the most expensive fee you ever pay to the Court. Most subsequent fees run from $20 to about $40. [You can apply for a Fee Waiver if you have little or no income, and obtain the forms from the clerk. Keep in mind that even unemployment income is generally too high to qualify for the fee waiver.] Take the original and two copies of each form with you. The clerk will keep the originals (with your ink signature) for the Court file, then return the two copies to you with a file-endorsed stamp. One set of copies is for you, the other is for your spouse (next step).
Serve the Documents on Your Spouse
You will need to "serve" a copy of these documents on your spouse. You cannot hand them to him/her personally. It is generally easiest to hire a professional process server, but this costs on average about $75. You can also have a friend, family member or any third party (as long as s/he is 18 or older) serve the documents. If you and your spouse are going to do things amicably, then you may want to have your process server mail the documents to your spouse to minimize the drama. In that case, you will need to include a "Notice and Acknowledgment of Receipt" (FL-117) that your spouse will sign and return to you. This document is your spouse's acknowledgment that s/he received the papers. You will also need to serve your client with a blank UCCJEA Declaration, as well as with a blank Response (FL-120).
Prepare and File a Proof of Service of Summons
The person who serves your spouse, whether in person or by mail, must complete a Proof of Service of Summons (FL-115) for you to file at the Court. This is your server's declaration under penalty of perjury that the documents were properly served. If the documents were mailed, you will attach the signed Notice and Acknowledgment of Receipt. You may want to prepare these forms for your process server so that s/he only needs to fill out the time/date of service and sign his/her name. There is no filing fee when you file your Proof of Service of Summons with the clerk.
The Countdown Begins
From the date of service, your spouse has 30 days in which to file and serve his/her Response to your Petition. If s/he does not meet this deadline, you may request that the Court find him/her in "Default" and grant the orders that you requested in your Petition -- without any input or consideration of what your spouse wants. In the near future, I will create a legal guide on how to file for a default Judgment in a divorce case.