How to file for divorce in California

In general, filing a family law case is fairly simple (legally-speaking. Emotionally? A totally different story). For a divorce or paternity case, the process is about the same. You need to file a Summons (different for each case), which basically just identifies you and your opponent and states that you are suing your opponent. With the Summons, you have to file a Petition (again, different for divorce and paternity), which is the ‘meat’ of the filing. The Petition specifies what’s going on and what you want, and defines the universe of options for your case.

For example, as I mentioned in an earlier post, if you want to be able to get spousal support at any time during your case, you MUST mark that box in your Petition. If you don’t, then it comes off the table completely. You need to file your Petition correctly, and there can be tricky elements, but for the most part it is fairly simple.

Finally, if you have children, you need to file the Declaration Under Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA). This form sounds scarier than it is, as it’s simply where your child has lived for the last five years.

Of course, if you are asking for any orders, such as a custody or visitation order, child or spousal support, or anything else, you have to file other forms. But merely filing your case involves just these three forms: Summons, Petition, and UCCJEA.

How to file for California divorce

Filing for divorce in California is pretty simple – you just file a form with the clerk.  Nolo Press has a great book about how to file your California divorce that goes over the process.  After making the difficult and emotional decision (usually it’s emotional and difficult; there are exceptions), the actual filing can be a bit anticlimactic, if pricey.  All you need to do is fill out the Family Law Summons, Petition, and the Declaration Under the Uniform Child Custody Jurisdiction and Enforcement Act (UCCJEA), which is a form you need only if you have children of the marriage.  All three forms are pretty straightforward, but they do need to be completed properly to ensure your rights are protected.

For example, the Family Law Petition outlines the basic issues in the case.  It isn’t a formal request for anything, but rather is a form that defines the universe of the issues in your case.  It is the Family Law RFO (Request for Order) or motion that gets you before the judge asking for the judge to make orders, not the Petition.  So if you mark on your Petition that you want your ex to pay your attorney fees, you won’t get those unless and until you also file a court motion, which is separate from the Petition.  Many of my clients come in to my office, upset that their ex has marked something on the Petition, when there’s nothing to get upset about.

Of course, once you have filed the documents, you need to serve them on your ex, which can be easy or difficult, depending on your situation.  Of course, you cannot serve the documents – they must be served by someone who is not you but is over 18 years of age.

And with that, your divorce is underway…

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