Divorce guide

California Divorce Process: 7 Step Guide

Deciding to get divorced is one of the biggest decisions you’ll ever make. It’s important to understand that your divorce won’t happen overnight. The divorce process in California is intricate and time-consuming. Learning about the process and knowing what to expect can help to make it easier to navigate your divorce.

Step 1: Filing the Paperwork

The divorce process begins when one spouse files a petition for divorce with their local court. The petition provides the court with important and relevant information. This includes the full names of each spouse and any children they share, the date of the marriage, and the reason for the divorce.

Grounds for Divorce: California is a no-fault divorce state. This means that spouses don’t have to point fingers or blame one another for the split. Instead, they can simply say that irreconcilable differences prevent them from continuing their relationship. Alternatively, spouses can file for divorce on the grounds of insanity.

In addition to the petition, the filing spouse (“petitioner”) may also file a request for temporary court orders. These may concern things like child custody arrangements, child support, or alimony. Temporary orders are only valid for the duration of the divorce process. Permanent agreements will become effective once the divorce is finalized.

Step 2: Serving the Non-Filing Spouse

While filing the petition does initiate the divorce process, it’s not official until the non-filing spouse (“respondent”) receives a copy of the divorce papers. This happens through a process called “service.” Service ensures that the non-filing spouse is notified about the legal proceeding and has the opportunity to respond.

Process of Service: In most cases, the petitioner will have a neutral third party over the age of 18 to deliver copies of the Petition, Summons, and other divorce papers directly to the respondent. Once the papers have been served, the process server must sign a Proof of Service of Summons. This document must be filed with the court in order for the divorce process to be official. Alternatively, the petitioner could mail the divorce papers using USPS Certified Mail and submit the Acknowledgment of Receipt as proof of service.

Step 3: Non-Filing Spouse Response

Once service is complete the non-filing spouse will have 30 days to respond to the divorce papers. How this part of the divorce unfolds will generally depend on whether spouses have a contested or uncontested divorce.

Contested Divorce: Spouses disagree about some or all of the terms of their divorce. This may include disputes about how property should be divided or who gets custody of the kids. If the respondent doesn’t agree with the terms proposed by the petitioner, they must relay those concerns in their response to the divorce papers. The respondent can contest facts or allegations and/or propose different terms.

Uncontested Divorce: Spouses agree on all of the terms of their divorce. When this happens, the respondent can either ignore the divorce summons or file a response in which they agree to the terms.

If the respondent ignores the divorce papers or chooses not to respond, the divorce will be considered a default. In a default, the request for the divorce and the terms proposed by the petitioner will be granted. The respondent will have lost his or her right to contest any elements of the divorce.

Step 4: Negotiating the Terms of the Divorce

While it is possible for spouses to agree on all aspects of the divorce from the very beginning, it is not particularly common. Most divorces are contested. When spouses have a contested divorce they must do everything in their power to negotiate the terms of the split privately.

Issues that may have to be resolved in a divorce include:

  • Property division
  • Child custody
  • Child support
  • Spousal support, and
  • Paternity.

Courts have the authority to step in and make unilateral decisions, but are often hesitant to do so. In many situations, spouses are even required to attend mandatory mediation sessions to hammer out the details of a divorce. Courts will only step in if these good-faith efforts to negotiate are unsuccessful.

According to Los Angeles divorce lawyer Steven Fernandez, it’s important for spouses to put in the work to negotiate the terms of a divorce themselves. “The terms of your divorce will affect you for the rest of your life,” he explains. “You want to retain as much control over these important decisions, as possible.” Fernandez suggests that divorcing spouses use the tools that are available to them. “Processes such as mediation, arbitration, and even collaborative divorce can help to lower costs and keep decisions in your hands.”

Mediation: A neutral third party (“mediator”) works with spouses individually and collectively, helping them identify big-picture issues and move toward mutually-agreeable resolutions. Mediation allows spouses to retain complete control over decisions related to their divorce.

Arbitration: A neutral third party (“arbitrator”) presides over a hearing in which both spouses (and their attorneys) propose arguments, offer evidence, and present witnesses.  Arbitration is essentially a private trial. Once both sides have presented their cases, the arbitrator will make final decisions about the couple’s divorce. The terms decided by the arbitrator are final. Arbitration can be a great alternative to court because it is private, less-expensive, and generally less time-consuming.

Collaborative Divorce: Collaborate divorce is a great option for spouses who are committed to avoiding the court system at all costs. In this process, attorneys representing both spouses sit down and negotiate the terms of the divorce. Both sides may offer evidence and even present witnesses. Spouses must commit to resolving the split privately using collaborative divorce. If the process is unsuccessful, each spouse must hire a new attorney and start from scratch. Collaborative divorce can be great because it allows spouses to retain complete control over negotiations.

Step 5: Litigation

What happens if spouses can’t see eye-to-eye? What if there are legitimate disputes about how terms of the divorce should be resolved? When negotiations stall, spouses can turn to the courts for help. A family law judge will schedule a trial date and expect to hear arguments from both spouses. When a divorce goes to trial spouses lose the right to control the outcome. The decision(s) made by the court will be final and binding. Both spouses will be required to comply with those terms. Violating court orders, including those relevant to a divorce, can have serious legal consequences.

Step 6: Final Judgment

The divorce process will officially end when (a) the time requirement has been satisfied and (b) all terms of the divorce have been finalized.

Time Requirement: Divorce simply can’t happen overnight in California. State law requires that the process take, at the very least, six months to unfold. The clock typically begins to run when the non-filing spouse is served. You’ll be required to wait six months to finalize the divorce even if it is uncontested or you were able to agree to the terms quickly.

Finalized Terms: When spouses get divorced they must figure out how to divide one family into two. This can be time-consuming and stressful. Spouses must agree about how assets and debts are allocated, who gets custody of the kids, and whether spousal support is necessary. A judge will not sign off on the divorce until spouses can prove that they have finalized all relevant aspects of the dissolution.

Once (at least) six months have passed and terms have been negotiated, a California family law judge will review the case. If the terms of the divorce are acceptable, the judge will sign an Order of Dissolution. This order terminates the marriage and restores each spouse as a single person. At this moment, the divorce process ends.

Step 7: Modifications

Just because a divorce is finalized doesn’t mean that terms of the split can never be changed. Spouses can file a request with the court to modify the terms of their divorce. A modification request may be necessary if:

  • A spouse remarries
  • A parent fails to uphold his or her obligations under the child custody agreement
  • Parents move away
  • Children develop new financial requirements
  • Abuse or neglect is suspected, or
  • A spouse loses his or her job.

Courts will consider modifications to divorce orders when a spouse can demonstrate a valid and substantial need for the change. So, while the terms of a divorce are “final,” they can still be changed if there is a demonstrated need.

Divorce can be a complicated, time-consuming, and stressful endeavor. The decisions you make along the way will affect you for the rest of your life. It’s always best to work with an experienced divorce attorney. Your lawyer will work to secure the results you want and protect your family’s best interests.

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How To Find the Best Divorce Lawyer in California

If you are going through a divorce in California, you’re probably wondering how to find a good divorce lawyer. We put together this comprehensive list to help you from the moment you begin your search through the time you actually retain an attorney.

1. Educate Yourself Before Meeting with Attorneys

Before even meeting with an attorney, you should take the time to educate yourself on the divorce process. Fortunately, there are great online resources to help you. We asked Los Angeles divorce lawyer Hossein Berenji for the top three sites he recommends. He suggested:

A. California Courts – Divorce and Separation Self-Help

This website, provided by the State of California, provides an excellent overview and resources for those seeking a divorce.

B. California Courts – Filing for Divorce

This website, also provided by the State of California, gives you step-by-step info regarding the divorce process. Even though you may be hiring a family law attorney, it helps to know the process.

C. State Bar of California – What Should I Know About Divorce and Custody

This information is provided by the State Bar of California, the administrative arm of the California Supreme Court overseeing attorney conduct. This FAQ covers important information that will help you get started on your divorce.

2. Be Proactive

If you suspect that your spouse is seeking a divorce, meet with an attorney immediately. Don’t wait until you’re served with divorce papers to start the process. After your spouse serves you with divorce papers, you will only have a small window of time in which to reply. You don’t want to have to hire an attorney under a tight deadline.

3. Look For An Attorney Online

If you’re searching for an attorney online, start by searching using the name of your city plus “divorce lawyer.” For example, if you live in Burbank, CA, you would type “Burbank divorce lawyer.”

Beyond the organic results you see, you may want to check out these additional sites:

YELP: Yelp is a great place to read about attorneys. While you should always take online reviews with a grain of salt, it’s a starting point when researching attorneys. Make sure you don’t simply look at how many stars they have, but take the time to read the actual reviews – both good and bad. See more: https://www.yelp.com

AVVO:  Avvo is another great place to research attorneys. Beyond the reviews and peer endorsements, Avvo tells you if the attorney has ever been disciplined by the State Bar for violating the California State Bar Rules of Professional Conduct. See more here: https://www.avvo.com

FINDLAW: FindLaw is another legal directory that you’ll usually see high in the search results. Beyond attorneys, you’ll also find informative articles related to divorce and family law. See more here: https://www.findlaw.com

CALIFORNIA STATE BAR:  The State Bar website provides information on attorneys and also offers a referral service. If the attorney has been disciplined, you can find out more by visiting their profile. You can also search for an attorney by visiting here. See more: http://www.calbar.ca.gov

4. Ask Friends For Recommendations

Word of mouth can actually point you to the right family law lawyer. Ask friends and family to recommend a good lawyer that handles divorce cases. You can try asking someone you know that has gone through a divorce. They may be able to suggest someone that you can hire to handle your own divorce case. You can increase your chances of finding the attorney by simply searching for one based on word of mouth.

5. What to Look For When Researching Attorneys

Some of the factors you’ll want to consider are:

  • Years of experience: How long have they have been practicing law?
  • Where they attended law school: While not as important as experience, it’s a good idea to find out where they attended law school.
  • Whether they exclusively handle family law: This is important, especially in a large city where attorneys tend to specialize in one area of law.

A lawyer that is experienced in family law should be your first choice. You should not look into a lawyer that handles real estate, or even a criminal defense attorney. Always go for a family law lawyer. By doing so, you will get their knowledge and expertise when it comes to divorce law.

6. Hire a Specialist

Depending on the complexity of your case, you may want to hire a Certified Family Law Specialist. A CFLS is certified by the California State Bar as a specialist in that particular area of law. Typically, you can expect a CFLS to charge a higher hourly rate than a non-CFLS.

Again, it may not be necessary unless your divorce involves more complex property division or custody matters.

7. Meet with at Least 2 – 3 Attorneys

Shop around for a competent divorce lawyer. You should not settle on the first one that you find. It can be a good idea to set up meetings with at least two or three other lawyers, especially if you want to find a competent one. You can canvas different kinds of lawyers, to get a sense of their different skill sets. By interviewing many divorce lawyers, you may be able to select the best one out of the bunch.

Many family attorneys now offer a free consultation. Use this time to essentially interview different attorneys. Discuss your case and get feedback. You shouldn’t always go with the attorney that tells you what you want to hear, but rather what you need to hear.

8. Questions to Ask a Divorce Attorney Before Hiring

Here are a few questions you should consider asking during the initial consultation.

A. How much do you charge per hour?

B. Do you have a “blended” rate (If yes, what is it?).

C. How much do you estimate my case will cost?

D. Are you familiar with opposing counsel?

E. Have they handled cases in front of the judge assigned to me? (If a judge has been assigned).

F. Will you be the only person working on my case? (If not, see below).

G. Who will be working on my case? (Get their experience)

H. Can I meet any associates that will be working on my case besides you?

I. During what hours can I call you?

J. What if I need to contact you in the event of an emergency?

K. Will I receive monthly bills?

L. How much is your initial retainer?

M. How do you bill per hour? In 6 minute increments?

9. Be 100% Honest

Attorneys throughout the United States are bound by what is known as attorney-client privilege. Even if you don’t retain them, they are bound by attorney-client privilege regarding whatever was said during the meeting. In California, attorney-client privilege provides almost absolute protection against an attorney disclosing what was said during the consultation.

People have a tendency to paint a one-sided picture during the initial consultation. While attorneys know this, it’s best to be 100% honest from the start. Remember, attorney-client privilege protects you regardless if you retain the attorney.

10. Personality Fit

A. Do you get along?

This is a simple one. Did you enjoy your meeting with them? Did you feel comfortable telling them about your situation. You don’t have to be best friends with your attorney, but it’s preferable to hire an attorney that you get along well with.

B. Did they pressure you to retain them?

If yes, you may want to hire someone else. While an attorney has to make a living, they are in a position of authority and shouldn’t be pressuring you to retain them.

11. Location

As they say, law is local. You therefore want an attorney who is local to court where your case is being heard. A local attorney will know the judges, attorneys, and experts.

Don’t hire an attorney because their office is conveniently located by where you live and/or work. Hire an attorney that is local to the court where you case is being heard.

12.  Law Office Appearance and Professionalism

This one is simple. If their office is dirty and their staff unfriendly, don’t expect that to change after you hire them. If they can’t be professional before you give them your money, they are unlikely to be professional after taking your money.

13. Understand the Scope of the Divorce

Before going down the path of divorce, you should try to understand the scope of your divorce. What are the issues at stake?

  • Custody
  • Support (child and/or spousal), and
  • Property Division

Knowing the contested issues will give you a better idea of what to expect in terms of time, money, and stress.

In Closing

By following these guidelines, you should be able to hire a very reliable and competent divorce lawyer. If you want to go through the least amount of trouble when you are undergoing a divorce, you should look into hiring one. A divorce lawyer’s services could be invaluable whenever you are going through a divorce. And you may be able actually to go through a pain-free divorce if you hire the right kind of lawyer to handle your case.

Do not hesitate to contact the services of a divorce lawyer if you find one that you can trust, you will be making a very good decision if you hire them.

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