Divorce in California: everything you need to know

1 min readLast updated February 21, 2024by Unbiased team

From filing and records to costs to child custody and alimony, this guide will take you through divorce in California and help you make informed decisions.

Summary

  • There are four main grounds for divorce in California which you must have before you can be granted a divorce.

  • The median cost of divorce in the US is $7,000, but this can fluctuate massively depending on your unique circumstances.

  • California does not have a mandatory separation period for divorce; however, there is a six month waiting period before you can be granted a divorce.

  • A financial advisor can help you navigate your finances during a divorce and rebuild afterward.

What are the different types of divorce in California?

There are four main types of California divorce options: no-fault divorce, uncontested divorce, simplified divorce and limited divorce.

Need help rebuilding your finances after divorce?

A financial advisor can guide you through your financial recovery both during and after your divorce.

1.      No-Fault Divorce: In a no-fault divorce, neither party needs to prove that the other did something wrong to cause the divorce. It’s a straightforward process where you can end your marriage or domestic partnership without assigning blame.

2.      Uncontested Divorce: An uncontested divorce occurs when both partners reach a mutual agreement on all aspects of the divorce, including property division, finances, and child-related matters. It’s a smoother process when both parties are in alignment.

3.      Simplified Divorce: The simplified divorce process is designed for couples with minimal assets and no children. It streamlines the paperwork and requirements, making it quicker and less complex.

4.      Limited Divorce: Limited divorce, also known as legal separation, allows couples to live apart while still legally married. It addresses issues such as property division, spousal support, and child custody but doesn’t terminate the marriage. It’s an option for those who want to separate without finalizing the divorce.

How do you file for divorce in California?

To file for divorce in California, you or your spouse must meet the following requirements:

  • You or your spouse must have lived in California for at least six months before filing for divorce.

  • You or your spouse must have lived in the county where you filed for divorce for at least three months before filing for divorce.

  • You or your spouse must cite a valid reason (or ground) for divorce. California is a no-fault divorce state, which means that you do not need to prove that your spouse did something wrong to get a divorce. The only grounds for divorce in California are irreconcilable differences (when the spouses cannot get along) or incurable insanity (when one spouse has a mental illness and cannot be cured).

The basic steps to file for divorce in California are:

  1. Fill out the required forms: You can find the forms online or at your local court. The main form is the Petition for Dissolution of Marriage, which asks for information about your marriage, your children, your property, your debts, and your requests for divorce. You also need to fill out a Summons, which notifies your spouse that you are filing for divorce, and other forms depending on your situation, such as a Declaration Under Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (if you have children) or a Property Declaration (if you have property to divide).

  2. File the forms with the court: You need to pay a filing fee, which varies by county, or request a fee waiver if you cannot afford it. You will receive a case number and a date for your first court hearing.

  3. Serve the forms to your spouse: You need to deliver a copy of the forms to your spouse in person or by mail, along with a Proof of Service form that shows how and when you served the forms. You cannot serve the forms yourself; you need to ask someone else who is at least 18 years old and not involved in the case to do it for you. You have 60 days from the date you filed the forms to serve them on your spouse.

  4. Respond to the forms (if you are the spouse who was served): You have 30 days from the date you received the forms to file a Response with the court, which indicates whether you agree or disagree with the requests in the petition. You also need to fill out and serve the same forms as the petitioner, except for the petition. You need to pay a filing fee or request a fee waiver. If you do not file a response, the court may grant the petitioner’s requests by default.

  5. Disclose your financial information: You and your spouse need to exchange information about your income, expenses, assets, and debts using forms such as the Income and Expense Declaration and the Schedule of Assets and Debts. You also need to file these forms with the court and serve them on each other. You have 60 days from the date you filed the petition or the response to complete this step.

  6. Negotiate a settlement (if possible): You and your spouse can try to reach an agreement on the issues of the divorce, such as child custody, child support, spousal support, property division, and debt allocation. You can use mediation, collaborative law, or other methods to help you resolve your differences. If you reach an agreement, you need to put it in writing and sign it. You also need to fill out a Judgment form and other forms that reflect your agreement.

  7. Go to trial (if necessary): If you and your spouse cannot agree on the issues of the divorce, you need to go to trial and let the judge decide for you. You need to prepare and present evidence, witnesses, and arguments to support your position. The judge will issue a Final Judgment that states the terms of the divorce.

  8. Finalize the divorce: You need to wait at least six months from the date you filed the petition or the date your spouse was served, whichever is later before your divorce is final. You also need to file a Notice of Entry of Judgment with the court and serve it on your spouse. This form confirms that the judgment has been entered and that the divorce is effective.

How much does a divorce cost in California?

The cost of a divorce in California depends on several factors, such as the type of divorce, the level of conflict, the amount of assets and debts, the involvement of children, and the use of professionals.

According to a 2019 survey by Nolo, the average cost of a divorce in California was $17,500, including $13,800 in attorney's fees. However, the price can vary widely depending on your specific situation.

Some of the main expenses involved in a divorce in California are:

  • Filing fees: As mentioned above, you and your partner need to pay a filing fee to the court, which is typically around $435 each. You may also need to pay additional fees for other forms or services, such as a fee waiver, a request for order, a notice of entry of judgment, or a certified copy of the judgment.

  • Service fees: You need to pay a fee to have someone serve the divorce papers on your partner, which can range from $50 to $100 or more, depending on the method of service and the location of your partner.

  • Attorney's fees: If you hire an attorney to represent you in your divorce, you need to pay for their services, which can vary depending on their experience, reputation, location, and hourly rate. According to the Nolo survey, the average hourly rate for a divorce attorney in California was $400. You may also need to pay for other expenses, such as court appearances, phone calls, emails, research, document preparation, filing, copying, postage, etc.

  • Mediation or arbitration fees: If you and your partner choose to use mediation or arbitration to resolve your disputes, you need to pay for the services of a mediator or an arbitrator, who is usually a neutral third-party professional. The cost of mediation or arbitration can vary depending on the duration, complexity, and outcome of the process, but it is generally cheaper than going to trial. According to the Nolo survey, the average cost of mediation in California was $4,500, while the average cost of arbitration was $7,000.

  • Expert fees: If you and your partner have complex or contested issues regarding your finances, assets, debts, or children, you may need to hire experts to provide opinions, evaluations, or testimony. These experts may include accountants, appraisers, financial planners, tax advisors, business valuators, forensic analysts, psychologists, therapists, social workers, etc. The cost of hiring experts can vary depending on their qualifications, experience, location, and hourly rate, but it can be very expensive.

  • Court costs: If you and your partner cannot reach an agreement and go to trial, you need to pay for the costs of the court, which may include fees for the judge, the court reporter, the bailiff, the jury, the witnesses, the transcripts, the exhibits, etc. The cost of going to trial can vary depending on the length, complexity, and outcome of the case, but it is generally the most expensive option. According to the Nolo survey, the average cost of a divorce trial in California was $26,300.

How do you split up assets in California?

California is a community property state, which means that all property and debts acquired during the marriage or the domestic partnership belong equally to both partners, regardless of who earned or spent them.

This includes income, bank accounts, investments, retirement accounts, real estate, vehicles, furniture, jewelry, etc.

However, there are some exceptions to the community property rule.

Separate property is anything that belongs to one partner only, such as:

  • Property owned before the marriage or the domestic partnership

  • Property acquired after the date of separation

  • Property received as a gift or an inheritance during the marriage or the domestic partnership

  • Property agreed to be separated by a valid written agreement, such as a prenuptial or a postnuptial agreement

Separate property remains the sole property of the owner and is not subject to division in a divorce. However, separate property can become community property if it is commingled or mixed with community property, such as depositing an inheritance into a joint bank account or adding a spouse's name to a deed.

To split up assets in California, the spouses or the domestic partners must first identify and classify all their property and debts as either community or separate. Then, they must assign a value to each item of property and debt, either by agreement or by using experts such as appraisers, accountants, or financial planners. Finally, they must divide the community property and debts equally, either by transferring ownership, selling assets and splitting the proceeds, or offsetting the value of one item with another.

How does alimony work in California?

Alimony, also known as spousal support, is a legal obligation on one spouse to provide financial assistance to the other spouse during or after a divorce or a legal separation. The purpose of alimony is to minimize any unfair economic effects of divorce and to maintain the lower-earning spouse's standard of living established during the marriage until they can become self-sufficient.

In California, there are two types of alimony: temporary and permanent.

Temporary alimony is short-term support ordered during the divorce proceedings to help cover living expenses before the final judgment. Permanent alimony is indefinite alimony with no set termination date, ordered in long-term marriages where a spouse cannot become fully self-supporting.

The amount and duration of alimony depend on several factors, such as:

  • The length of the marriage or the domestic partnership

  • The standard of living established during the marriage or the domestic partnership

  • The income and earning capacities of each spouse or partner

  • The education levels and careers of each spouse or partner

  • The health conditions and ages of each spouse or partner

  • The tax consequences of alimony

  • Any other factors the court deems relevant

There is no fixed formula for calculating alimony in California, except for temporary alimony, which is often based on a percentage of the difference between the spouses' or partners' incomes.

The court has the discretion to determine the amount and duration of alimony that is "just and reasonable" based on the circumstances of each case.

Alimony in California ends when:

  • The former spouse or partner receiving alimony remarries or enters into a new domestic partnership

  • The supported spouse or partner cohabits with a new partner in certain circumstances

  • Either spouse or partner passes away, though the estate may still have payment obligations

  • A durational alimony term expires

  • Certain conditions ordered by the court are met

What happens to children during a divorce in California?

Child custody in California refers to the legal rights and responsibilities of parents regarding their children's care, education, health, and welfare.

There are two types of child custody: legal and physical.

Legal custody is the authority to make major decisions for the children, such as where they go to school, what religion they practice, or what medical treatment they receive.

Physical custody is where the children live and who supervises them on a daily basis.

Child custody can be shared or sole. Shared custody means that both parents have legal and physical custody of the children, either jointly or separately.

Sole custody means that one parent has legal and physical custody of the children, and the other parent has visitation rights.

The court can order any combination of custody arrangements that suit the needs of the children and the parents as long as they are in the children's best interests.

Some of the factors that the court considers when determining the best interests of the children are:

  • The age and health of the children and the parents

  • The emotional bond and relationship between the children and the parents

  • The ability and willingness of the parents to cooperate and communicate with each other

  • The ability and willingness of the parents to provide a stable and safe environment for the children

  • The wishes of the children, if they are old and mature enough to express them

  • The history of domestic violence, substance abuse, or child abuse by either parent

  • Any other relevant factors

Child support in California is the financial obligation of a parent to contribute to the costs of raising their children. The non-custodial parent usually pays child support to the custodial parent, but it can also be paid by both parents if they share custody.

The amount of child support depends on several factors, such as:

  • The income and earning capacities of each parent

  • The number and ages of the children

  • The amount of time each parent spends with the children

  • The tax status of each parent

  • The health insurance and childcare expenses of the children

  • Any special needs of the children

  • Any other relevant factors

The court uses a statewide guideline formula to calculate child support, which takes into account the above factors and produces a presumptive amount that is fair and adequate for the children. However, the court can deviate from the guideline amount if it finds that it would be unjust or inappropriate in a particular case.

How to protect your finances when going through a divorce in California?

Going through a divorce can be a stressful and challenging time, especially when it comes to finances. You may have many questions and concerns about how to protect your assets, manage your debts, and plan for your future.

Here are some ways you can protect your money when going through a divorce:

  • Organize your finances: Before filing for divorce, gather all relevant financial information and documents, such as tax returns, bank statements, credit card bills, and retirement accounts. Make a list of all assets and liabilities, both marital and non-marital. This will help you and your spouse negotiate a fair distribution of property and debts.

  • Consider mediation: Mediation is a process where you and your spouse work with a neutral third party to resolve issues related to your divorce, such as property division, alimony, child custody, and child support. Mediation can be less time-consuming, less expensive, and less stressful than going to court. It can also help you maintain a cooperative relationship with your spouse after the divorce.

  • Think about Social Security: If you have been married for at least 10 years, you may be eligible to receive Social Security benefits based on your ex-spouse’s record. This can provide valuable income during retirement, especially if your ex-spouse earned more than you. However, certain criteria must be met to qualify for this benefit.

  • Seek professional help: Divorce can significantly impact your financial situation. Consider consulting with a financial advisor specializing in divorce to help you navigate these changes and plan for your future.

Get expert financial advice

A financial advisor can help you assess your current financial status, create a post-divorce budget, and develop a long-term financial plan that aligns with your needs and goals.

Unbiased can connect you with a financial advisor perfectly suited to meet your needs. Simply provide some details about what you’re looking for, and Unbiased’s platform will match you with your advisor.

Find your financial advisor with Unbiased today.

Writers

Unbiased team

Our team of writers, who have decades of experience writing about personal finance, including investing and retirement, are here to help you find out what you must know about life’s biggest financial decisions.

Need help rebuilding your finances after divorce?

A financial advisor can guide you through your financial recovery both during and after your divorce.