Written by attorney John Neal Griffith

How do I file for Divorce in California? How long does the process take? How should I prepare?

Petition for Divorce

To begin a divorce in the state of California, one spouse must file a Divorce Petition. The person who files the Petition is then referenced as the "Petitioner." The Divorce Petition must then be served on the opposite spouse.

Response to Petition for Divorce

After the opposite spouse is served, that person has 30 days to file a Response. This document tells the court that the Respondent wishes to participate in the divorce proceedings. The person who must file the Response is then referenced as the "Respondent."

Uncontested “Default" Divorce

If the Respondent fails to file a Response within 30 days after being served with divorce paperwork, the case may proceed without the Respondent’s participation. This is known as a default. The Petitioner requests that the court enter a default against the Respondent. At this point, the Petitioner may prepare a judgment and submit it to the court. The Petitioner requests orders concerning custody, visitation, child support, spousal support, attorney fees, and division of property (All depending on the issues between parties). Six months after the Respondent is served with the Divorce Petition, the divorce becomes final (this is called a "waiting period").


If the Respondent files a Response, the dissolution proceeding becomes a “contested matter." The parties are required to exchange documents and other information about their property, debts and incomes. This stage of the divorce is called "Discovery." Discovery can be in the form of questions asked in person (by deposition) or through written questions and requests for documentation.

Temporary Orders for Child Custody, Child Visitation, Spousal Support, Child Support,Attorney Fees

If one or both of the parties need the court to make orders before trial, either spouse may request these orders by filing an Order to Show Cause. Normally, the request will be for child custody, child visitation, child support, spousal support, attorney fees, or for a domestic violence restraining order. Each party appears in court and explains his/her position. The court then makes temporary orders based upon the evidence.

Mandatory Settlement Conference and Trial Setting

After discovery is complete, the court will set the case for a Trial. Normally, the court will schedule a Mandatory Settlement Conference before trial. This is a date in the courtroom when both sides are ordered to appear with their attorneys and attempt to settle as many issues before the trial as they can. If they are able to settle the entire case, a Marital Settlement Agreement is drafted, and a judgment of dissolution is entered. (*Again, six months after the Respondent was served with the Divorce Petition, the divorce becomes final.) At trial, each attorney presents evidence and arguments. The judge makes orders on all unresolved issues. The judgment is prepared and approved by the divorce attorneys and then submitted to the court. Once the judge signs the judgment and the six month waiting period has elapsed, the divorce becomes final.

Post Judgment Modification of Orders

Even after the court signs the judgment for divorce, some orders can be modified. These include child support, custody, visitation, and usually spousal support. However, only in limited circumstances can other orders be changed after the judgment is entered, these include orders dividing property, and orders awarding attorney fees.Keep in mind that every divorce can be very different depending on the specific issues between spouses. As mentioned, a divorce can be finalized within the waiting period, but if the parties cannot reach an agreement and a judgment is not made final within the waiting period, then the process could take quite a bit longer.The best way to prepare for a divorce is to listen to the advice of your attorney and be willing to compromise within reason. It’s also important to be sure that you are satisfied with agreements made because you will have to live with them (in large part) once your divorce is finalized.

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