Written by attorney Erik Wayland Newton

The Basic Steps of the California Divorce

Obtaining a divorce in California is as easy as you’re willing to make it. In the simplest incarnation, a California dissolution can be completed as quickly as six months from the date of service – and completely without an attorney. As a structure to understand how a divorce proceeds in California, this guide breaks down the fundamental steps – the paperwork.

Step One – the Petition and Summons

In order to begin a divorce in California, one party files and serves two court documents on the other spouse: the Petition and the Summons. “Filing" means taking the completed Petition and Summons to the Court Clerk’s office – the clerk stamps the documents, keeps a copy, and returns a copy to you (you provide the copies). “Service" means delivering the stamped copy of the Petition and Summons (along with a blank Response document) to your spouse. This has to be done by a third party. That third party then delivers a “Proof of Service" to the Court Clerk’s office.

Your six-month clock (which is the waiting period in California to get a divorce) begins to tick as soon as your spouse is properly served with the Petition and Summons.

The party who was served with the paperwork (the “respondent") has 30 days to file and serve a Response. If the respondent does not file the response within 30 days, the first spouse (the “petitioner") can ask the court to enter a “default," meaning that the petitioner can continue to get a divorce even without the involvement of the respondent.

Step Two – Financial Disclosures

Next, the parties are required to serve financial disclosures on one another. Just like the Petition and Summons, the disclosure paperwork is in the form of court documents which are available on the Court’s website. This package of financial disclosure documents together is called the “Preliminary Declarations of Disclosure."

Each party is required to prepare and serve PDDs on the other side. The court will not complete your divorce if this step has not been finalized. The idea being that you cannot divide up assets if you don’t know what you have to divide. Penalties for failing to disclose assets are quite high – the court can award 100% of undisclosed asset to the other party as a penalty in some circumstances. It’s best to be thorough and honest at this stage.

Step Three – Negotiations

Next, the parties begin negotiating the terms of their divorce. If the parties agree on asset divistion, this step can be done almost immediately. If they don’t agree, this step can take years and cost tens of thousands of dollars. An experienced family lawyer can help you both move quickly and protect your rights.

Step Four – Marital Settlement Agreement

The results of the negotiations are then formalized with a contract called a Marital Settlement Agreement (“MSA"). This contract is signed by the parties and made into an enforceable Order of the Court.

Getting the MSA right is extremely important. Badly written MSAs can be nearly impossible to enforce, and often create interpretation problems down the road. We advise our clients to hire an attorney for this stage if nothing else.

Step Five – the Judgment Packet

Finally, the parties submit their signed MSA along with several other forms, including a the “Judgment" form to the court for review. If the forms have been properly completed, the court will stamp the MSA and you will officially be divorced.

The Judgment Packet is somewhat intricate and detail-oriented. The courts routinely reject Judgment Packets for errors, which can be very frustrating when you’re in a hurry to get divorced. Many couples hire someone to look over their packet before submission to avoid these errors.

Step Six - Get Help When you Need it

At some point, you may need help from an attorney. If that's the case, feel free to give us a call. We're handle divorce matters every day, and we're happy to help. We can be reached at 415-398-1290, or [email protected].

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