Legal Center:  The Divorce Process

SIMPLE CASES: AGREED AND UNCONTESTED

Some People are able to reach a simple resolution of their case, where they agree on an uncontested divorce. "Uncontested" means that: 

  • You and your spouse can agree outside of court about how you want to handle money, property, and parenting issues (for some, this means that your spouse won't even have to file a response to your court forms);

    OR 

  • Your spouse is unlikely to file any forms in court disagreeing with your requests. If your spouse does not file a response you may obtain a "default" judgment. 

Most uncontested cases can be handled by mail or brief contacts with the clerk or judge. You may not have to go into court to handle your case. 

If you and your spouse cannot agree on one or more issues, then your case is "contested." The judge will know that your case is contested if your spouse files a response that lists what he or she disagrees with. (The judge cannot do anything to resolve the disagreement, however, until you or your spouse file the necessary forms to set a court hearing or trial date so the judge can hear both sides of the case.)

If your case starts out as or later becomes contested, you may be able to work out an agreement through negotiation, mediation, or some other process. If you are able to reach an agreement in this way, your case can then become uncontested. Once the case is uncontested, you can handle it with this guide and without going to a court hearing. You can also cancel any future court dates that may have already been scheduled. 

There is also a simple procedure called summary dissolution that you may qualify for. 

An Easier Way to Get Divorced - Summary Dissolution
Some people can use an even easier process to end their marriage than the regular dissolution process discussed in this section. The process is called summary dissolution. Summary dissolution is for people who meet all of the following requirements: 

  • They have been married less than five years as of the date they file their Joint Petition for Summary Dissolution of Marriage; 
  • They have no children together that were adopted or born before or during the marriage (and the wife is not pregnant now); 
  • They do not own or have an interest in any real estate (meaning a house, condominium, rental property, land, or a one-year lease or option to buy); 
  • They do not owe more than $5,000 in total for debts acquired since the date of the marriage (not counting vehicle loans); 
  • They have less than $25,000 worth of total property (not counting any money owed on the property and not counting any cars) that was acquired during the marriage; 
  • They do not have separate property (not counting any money owed on the property and not counting any cars) worth more than $25,000; 
  • They agree that neither spouse will ever get spousal support; 
  • Both sign the Joint Petition and pay the court filing fees or get a fee waiver; 
  • At least one spouse has lived in California for the last six months and in the county where they plan to file for the last three months; AND
  • They have signed an agreement that divides their property and debts before filing the Joint Petition for Summary Dissolution of Marriage. 

If you meet the above requirements, ask your court clerk for the summary dissolution forms and booklet. 

Why go to court?
You may wonder why you have to go through this legal process, especially if you and your spouse have already agreed about how you will handle money and parenting issues. Getting married was a legal process, and ending your marriage is also a legal process. Unless you have a court order ending your marriage or granting you a legal separation, you may continue to be responsible to and for your spouse financially (including loans and credit cards). Until you have a judgment dissolving your marriage, you cannot marry anyone else.

Why are there so many forms?
Sometimes there are so many forms that you may feel overwhelmed. The legal process is complicated and often confusing. This is because the law must protect everyone's interests. 

To make things easier, it is best to take your case one step at a time and complete only those forms necessary at a particular time. If you have trouble filling out your forms, you should contact a family law lawyer or the county family law facilitator for help.

Getting Legal Help
Although the court process can be challenging, many people are able to start and finish their court cases on their own or with limited help from lawyers or legal support professionals. You can avoid delays, mistakes, and spend less time in court, if you take the time to read this guide before you start any court action or fill out any forms.

The best way to get help is to hire a lawyer. If you do not want to hire a lawyer, or cannot afford one, you should consider at least scheduling a consultation with a lawyer, or several lawyers, to get a professional opinion about your case. Consultations are usually either free or low-cost. A consultation with a lawyer can often save you time and money in the long run. A lawyer can help you decide if any court action should be taken, and if so, how best to go forward. A lawyer can give you confidential (private) advice and help you figure out how to present and argue your case. Some lawyers offer "unbundled" or "discrete task" services, meaning you hire them to do only certain parts of the case, such as preparing court forms, appearing in court, negotiating agreements, etc. In this type of arrangement, you do the remaining work.

Most people need at least some information and help in order to be able to pick the right type of court case to start, choose appropriate court forms and procedures, and decide how to present certain issues to the court.

You are not required to have a lawyer. You may hire a lawyer to represent you in your case, or you may represent yourself. If you represent yourself, the court will expect you to meet the same standard as it does a lawyer. You will be expected to know how to present your case, what the rules and procedures are, etc. The judge and court clerks cannot help you argue or present your case, or tell you what you need to do next. If you hire a lawyer, you must pay all of their fees. The court cannot give you a free lawyer in family law cases.

If you cannot afford a lawyer, you may visit the family law facilitator. Each court has a family law facilitator, and they are lawyers who can assist you with child support, spousal support and health insurance issues. The facilitators cannot represent you or provide you with any confidential advice, but they can explain laws and procedures and help you choose and complete the right court forms. Facilitators can also tell you about useful community resources, including nonprofit groups that assist parents and lawyer referral services. Some facilitators provide services through workshops, others through one-on-one meetings. Some facilitators provide additional services such as assistance with custody/visitation, divorce and parentage issues. 

Check with your local family law facilitator to learn more about their services.

Find the Family Law Facilitator in Your County.


The above information is an excerpt from the Self-Help Center maintained by the Judicial Counsel of California